When I was a child, as part of our family prayer, we used to pray for a happy death. In my young mind, I had a certain conception of what that might look like. A happy death would be to die inside of grace, cradled warmly in the loving arms of family and church, fully at peace with God and others, having had time to speak some final words of love and gratitude.
Not many people get to die like that. Accidents, unfortunate circumstance, and the complexity of human relationships conspire so that often people die in less-than-ideal situations – angry, compromised, unforgiving, bitter, immature, unreconciled. Sometimes too the very cause of death speaks of lack of peace: drunkenness, an overdose of drugs, depression, recklessness, suicide. Death often catches people before they have had time to do and say the things that should have been done and said. Invariably there is some unfinished business.
We all know examples of this: A man dead in an accident whose last words to his family were ones of anger; a woman dead of an overdose who hasn’t talked to her family in years; a colleague dead by his own hand, a friend who dies bitter, unable to forgive; or even simply the loved one who’s taken away before he or she has had the chance to speak some last words of love and farewell. Rarely do people die with no unfinished business.
The pain of this can linger for a long time. I remember, in my early years of priesthood, counselling a man in his fifties who still carried pain and guilt from his mother’s death more than forty years previous. He had been taken to his mother’s bedside in the hospital, but wasn’t aware that she was dying. She had asked him to give her a hug and he, a child, frightened and reticent, had backed away. The next day she died and thus his last memory of his mother was his refusing to hug her. When I met him it was forty years later and he still hadn’t made peace with that.
Many of us have had persons close to us die with whom we had unfinished business, a hurt that was never reconciled, an injustice that was never rectified, a bitterness that never softened. Death has now separated us and the unfinished business remains precisely unfinished and we are left saying: “If only there was another chance!”
Well, there is another chance. One of our wonderful, albeit neglected, Christian doctrines is our belief in the communion of the saints. It’s a doctrine that’s enshrined in the creed itself and it asks us to believe that we are still in vital communication with those who have died. Moreover, it tells us that the communication we now have with them is free from many of the tensions that coloured our relationship with them while they were still alive.
Hence, to believe in the communion of saints is to believe that we can still tend to unfinished business in our relationships, even after death. Simply put, we can still talk to those who have died and we can, even now, say the words of love, forgiveness, gratitude, and regret that ideally we should have spoken earlier. Indeed, inside the communion of saints the reconciliation that always eluded us while that person was alive can now more easily take place. Why?
Because inside the communion of saints, after death, our communication is privileged. Death washes clean. It clarifies perspective and takes away a lot of relational tensions. Why do I say this? Both because our faith and our experience teach us this.
For example, all of us have experienced situations where, inside of a family, a friendship circle, a community, or a group of colleagues, a bitter difference grows up and festers so that eventually there is an unresolvable tension. Things have happened that can no longer be undone. Then someone in the family or community dies and that death changes everything. In a strange way the death brings with it a peace, a clarity, and a charity which, prior to it, were not possible. Why is this? It’s not simply because the death has changed the chemistry of the group or because, as we may simplistically conclude, the source of the tension or bitterness has died. It happens because, as Luke teaches in his Passion narrative, death can wash things clean. Death releases forgiveness, in the same way as Jesus forgave the good thief upon the cross as he died.
This can be an immense consolation to us. What we can’t bring to wholeness in this life can, if we are attentive to the communion of saints, be completed afterwards. We still have communication, privileged communication, with our loved ones after death. Among the marvels of that lies the fact that we still have a chance to fix the things, after death, that we were powerless to mend before death took a loved one away.