Everyday Grace: Thoughts on Dying Young

By Larry Cunningham | Spring 2012

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Thoughts on Dying Young

Recently, I was in the chapel of O’Neill Family Hall on campus. On the right wall, enclosed in a glass case, is a late medieval triptych with the center panel depicting the Madonna holding the Christ Child. Tucked into the margins of the case were memorial holy cards honoring young people who died, evidently placed there by students. It was a poignant moment to discover that display. Over my four decades of teaching, more than half at Notre Dame, I have attended more than one memorial liturgy honoring students who have passed away after a struggle with illness or due to an accident or, in rare cases, because they took their own lives.

People frequently die young. We read of young men and women killed in warfare. Thousands of children die each day for a simple lack of clean drinking water. Others die because they thought themselves immortal and drank too much, drove too recklessly, ingested witlessly too many drugs, or through simple immaturity. Finally, mysterious though it may be, children and young people are struck down by fatal illnesses.

But it was seeing those memorial cards in the chapel of Saint Joseph the Worker in O’Neill Hall that got me thinking about death, and especially the death of the young. After all, Saint Joseph is, in Catholic parlance, the patron of a holy death because tradition tells us that Joseph died in the home of Mary and Jesus.

Thinking back on those occasions reminded me how inarticulate we can become when we attempt to express ourselves to shattered parents, families and friends. If we are at all sensitive, we do not let the standard clichés come readily to the lips: He’s in a better place. It was God’s will for her. Time will heal. 

Every cliché has a truth in it, but clichéd truths are not what the survivors desire. We should never say those things unless we deeply believe them, but we do need to do something. My practice is to write the family of the deceased even if I did not know the student well or at all. If we believe the claim about the “Notre Dame Family,” then even we distant “cousins” need to make the gesture. Nonetheless, I always find writing those letters to be an enormous challenge because it is difficult to say something that does not come across as mawkish. 

If we can avoid the hollow clichés, there is one great positive thing we can do, and that is erase the notion that the intimate family alone is suffering. We can do something of powerful good by simply being there. By doing that, we underscore a fundamental truth of our faith: No one is left in isolation; we as a community say Our Father and not simply My Father. When students leave the University because of health and die at home, it is the custom of Notre Dame to send some fellow students and a priest to the funeral. Whatever they may say or however little they can say is far less important than the gesture of being there in solidarity.

Some years ago, one of our graduate students bore a baby that died within a few days even after heroic efforts to save the child at a downstate hospital. The funeral was held in the chapel of Malloy Hall with the funeral liturgy jointly presided over by the mother’s father (an Episcopal priest) and a monk who was a fellow graduate student. At the conclusion of the service, we as a community walked through the campus down Notre Dame Avenue, where the little coffin was lowered into a grave in Cedar Grove cemetery. The words of the church and the solidarity of the grieving community were, in my mind, just perfect. The words were those of the Scriptures and the community was there listening and intoning them. Every time I pass Cedar Grove I think about that event.

The funeral liturgy of the church allows for grief and mourning (there is room to cry) while insisting on the note of hope. After all, the Christian faith does not underscore immortality, but resurrection.

That is what is meant by the final affirmations that we recite in the Nicene Creed. We “look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.” We “look forward,” which is to say, we hope and wait. To that we then add, “Amen.” The word amen is Hebrew and means literally “we attest” or, to put it more clumsily, “what we say is true.” There, in a nutshell, is the very best we can do when faced with the sheer reality of death. We stand in communion with those suffering and in that standing we wait in hope as a sign of faith, steady in the truth of the words of Jesus, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”              

Blessed John Henry Newman said it best: “May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen and the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over and our work is done! Then in His mercy may He give us safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last.”