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One week after my father died*, the world lost another great guy. Though I didn’t know him very well, I can honestly call him a friend. He was always kind, thoughtful and deeply considerate. He’d suffered for well over a month before his death. The final diagnosis was — get ready for it — West Nile Virus. He was not infected while gallivanting about the pyramids, mind you. He lived in Southern Indiana. Please, think about this. I want you to understand the enormity of it: A super-nice guy was bitten by a mosquito in Indiana…and died a horrible death. Now, I get stung by mosquitoes all the time. They love me. But I never once considered it more than an annoying itch. Death never once entered my mind. Why should it?

Do I seem bitter? I guess I am. The randomness of the whole thing has gotten under my skin. (Like a mosquito’s proboscis, am I right?**) It just seems so very wrong. Unplanned. Stupid. Where is the movement of Providence in a death like that?

Which brings us to the four toughest words in our, or any other, language: Thy will be done. We say it all the time in The Lord’s Prayer. But how much do we mean it? Aren’t we always hedging our bets — thy will be done, except—? Thy will be done, only don’t forget about—? Thy will be done, but could you just do this one thing first? Or this, my favorite, thy will be done — but not that. That should not be done. Not only do we have no right to say these things — God doesn’t, after all, owe us anything — what good does it do us? Human beings have amply demonstrated their inability to run their own lives with anything resembling focused intention. We should be glad to give our will over to God. But we aren’t.

The pastor at our church recently said that we should not pray for things we want. We should pray instead that our wills be molded to God’s. We should want what God gives us, however hard that is. It shouldn’t be so difficult. God wants us to be happy, after all. God loves us. And God is a big-picture person, in a way that we cannot be. God’s got the bird’s-eye view.

A person in mourning can’t see the greater purpose of a death like my friend’s. But I have to believe that there is one. Because even if there isn’t, I’d rather live like there is. That’s where faith lives and breathes. I’d rather live believing that Someone Out There sees the whole puzzle than think for one minute that solving this thing is up to me. Life is too short, and eternity too long, to believe otherwise.

So here it is: God’s will be done. Go ahead. Bring it on. I won’t even brace myself for it. (Okay, maybe a little.)

*I refuse to use euphemisms like “passed.” Or worse, as one woman put it, “She lost her father.” I didn’t lose him. He died. He’s not pining for the fjords, for crying out loud. (That’s a shout-out to Monty Python fans, by the way.)

**Sorry. I can’t seem to stop using humor as a shield.

Depending who you ask, there are either five or seven stages of grief. Having recently become an expert on this topic (unwillingly — my father died exactly three weeks ago), I think I can boil it down to three stages, especially if the grieving person is a spiritual one.

Stage One: Acceptance. You think you can handle it. Sure, you’re sad, but you know your loved one is in heaven. You’re a religious person; you know God has taken your loved one to a better place. You cry, but you expect to. It’s okay.

Stage Two: Complete chaos. You’re angry. But not at God. Your spirituality won’t allow it. But you’re still mad. At whom? Not your loved one. Maybe you’re angry at Death. But Death isn’t a real entity. You’re stuck with feelings that you don’t know what to do with. So you yell at people on television, like those snotty folks on any given HGTV show who MUST have granite in their chef’s kitchen, although neither of them cooks, and a walk-in closet just for shoes, because why not? You’re sad, too, so sad you think you’ll never get past it. Some days, you just want to stay in bed with the covers over your head. But you’re embarrassed to say so because who wants to deal with a depressed person? I know people who went back to work the day after they lost a loved one. Why can’t I pull it together?

Stage Three: Acceptance again. You don’t get past it or over it so much as you get through it. And hopefully you gain a little wisdom in the process. Like this: Everybody grieves differently. Don’t let anyone tell you how to do it. You have to do whatever it is you need to do. But do listen to the advice of others: One friend told me, “Just cry whenever you feel like it. Even if it’s inopportune. Don’t hold it in.” I’m taking that bit of advice, probably to the consternation of others. I saw an older man in a white jacket the other night at a restaurant and nearly sobbed aloud. Because my dad had a white jacket. Stupid? Silly? I don’t much care.

Right now, I’m still firmly mired in Stage Two, with glimpses of Stage Three every once in a while. And I can say with some authority that grieving is hard, even for someone who considers herself a spiritual person. You’d think it’d be easier. You’d be wrong.

One of my friends says she knows her mother better now than when her mom was alive. She gets signs from her, the kind of signs you read about in Guideposts magazine: “My dad loved butterflies, and one day when I was thinking of him, a butterfly landed on my hand!” Maybe those things happen to other people, but they haven’t happened to me. (Unless the guy with the white jacket was really an angel, which I find difficult to believe…unless angels really like salad bars.) As much as I’d like a sign from heaven, I haven’t got one yet. Maybe I never will.

Grief tests you. It tests the things you believe in the most. And though my inner being is rocked by chaos, I haven’t lost sight of the things I believe. I’m holding onto them because I know they will get me through this. Whether there are seven stages or three, I’m going to get through it. Because all those things I said and thought at Stage One? They’re the truth. I’m counting on it.

Here’s my favorite anecdote concerning Sr. Jeanne Knoerle, former President of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, my alma mater: It was the day that Ronald Reagan was nearly assassinated. Someone at the college heard the news, and various students were sent to dispatch it to the outlying campus buildings. One student ran into the gymnasium shouting, “The President’s been shot! The President’s been shot!”

“Oh my God!” a senior cried. “Someone shot Sister Jeanne!”

That’s how central she was to our lives, then and now. Sr. Jeanne died this week of a heart attack. It was sudden, as heart attacks so often are, but particularly jarring to those of us who knew and loved her. I can practically hear people saying to themselves, “But I just saw her, and she looked the same as ever.” And she did. Though well into her 80s, she could have passed for 65. She was active, trim, always whip-smart and incredibly present.

It was during her tenure that the college began its distance-learning program, one of the earliest of its kind — practically ubiquitous today, but back then, unheard of. After her retirement, she continued teaching a rare class here and there. I was lucky enough to be a member of her Critical Writing class. For our final critique, she took us out to a wonderfully posh French restaurant, and told us to order anything we wanted, on her.

When dessert rolled around, the junior next to me exchanged a meaningful glance with me. We both wanted to order a cappuccino with our dessert, she because she’d just spent a semester in Europe, me because it sounded so grown-up and exotic. Now, nuns as a rule don’t have a lot of money. Theirs is not exactly a lucrative calling. But Sr. Jeanne generously nudged us to indulge. That’s how she was.

Jeanne was a leader, and her presence will be missed at the college, even though she hasn’t been its president for nearly 30 years. In a way, an era has ended. I try to console myself by thinking that she would have wanted her death to be this way. She wouldn’t have wanted to fade out, losing her memory and her independence. But it’s small comfort.

I sometimes worry about who will mourn me when I die, as I don’t have any children. However, I fully expect Jeanne’s funeral to boast an overflow crowd. We, all of us who attended St. Mary-of-the-Woods, were her children. Her influence was far-reaching. Because of her, many working women earned degrees they never thought they’d have. That’s not just a boon for education; it’s a boon for feminism.

Perhaps this blog is not the proper place for an elegy. But my alma mater is hard-wired into my faith; it is part and parcel of my spiritual life. As was Sr. Jeanne, and all of the Sisters of Providence. And while her loss will be felt and mourned, I can almost imagine her meeting up with our founder, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, up in the heaven where they most assuredly are. Now that’s a conversation I’d give anything to hear.


Have a Mary Little Christmas

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