Thinking About Grandparents, Suffering and Death

Every year on this lovely feast of SS Joachim and Anne, the names given to the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary and hence to the grandparents of Jesus, I find myself thinking about my own grandparents and those who have played a grandparent’s role in my life. Just occasionally, I’ll acknowledge I have reached the grandparent age myself, and that tends to turn my thoughts in a more difficult direction. Today, for example, with the sadness surrounding Charlie Gard still uppermost in many people’s minds, I find myself thinking about what I learned from my grandparents about pain, suffering and dying and, inevitably therefore, what Jesus learned about these from His and how that applies to my own life.

It is a trusim in Catholic circles that we live in a culture of death. Abortion and euthanasia are seen as solutions to problems, not as the illicit taking of human life they actually are. In such a culture, pain and suffering are to be avoided by whatever means may be available, and that tends to lead to moral and ethical confusion. Whose pain, whose suffering, is to be avoided, especially if it can only be done at the expense of another? I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea that pain and suffering are to be embraced for their own sakes, as a positive good, but I do believe they are part of being human and, as such, to be accepted — often imperfectly and with great difficulty. I learned that from my grandparents. As they grew older and life became tougher, they didn’t suddenly become saints, bearing all things with serenity. They remained the same people, getting on with things as best they could, sometimes a little querelous, sometimes surprising us all with their generosity and good humour. I begin now to recognize how much that must have cost them. It is wonderful to be able to suffer pain and diminishment without a ripple on one’s temper but very few can do that. I know I can’t.

It is when we come to the question of dying that I think our culture of death shows up its hollowness. We do whatever we can to delay death and hide from it when it comes. Our elderly relatives are consigned to care homes, and when they die, the undertaker takes care of all. I am not suggesting that we should revert to an idealised world of the past, where the elderly were part of an extended family, and family members performed all the last offices of washing and laying out the body, but I do want to ask whether we have somehow lost something precious, something intrinsic to our dignity as human beings by our fleeing the nitty-gritty of death. When Jesus came to die on the Cross, he surely did so with a pattern of dying, of surrendering to God, that he had learned from his family. If we are lucky, we learn that from our family, too; and just as the holy women went to the tomb to perform the last rites and found themselves instead confronting the amazing fact of Resurrection, so we, too, find ourselves reaching beyond ourselves, beyond the brutality of loss, into the mystery of God.

Reaching into the mystery of God sounds very fine until we stop to think what it implies by way of suffering and death. The Church has never sentimentalised the death of Jesus. There have never been any easy words, any comforting images, any attempt to hide away from the bleakness and desolation of the event. Hope — and the Church is strong on hope — is not a panacea. We must plumb the depths of loss and pain. Yet in doing so we discover an immense and astonishing truth. This life is not all there is. Our humanity is graced beyond measure.

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

I first learned that from my grandparents.


5 thoughts on “Thinking About Grandparents, Suffering and Death”

  1. As alwys you touch on sensitive subjects with compassion and widom. Thanks.
    A tricky area which is, all too often, awash with sentiment rather than sensible advice. Suffering and death are never going to be easy, there is no clever answer as to why God allows me/my parent/my child to suffer so much. What the Church/God/Faith or whatever we cling to, does offer is the hope you mentioned. The pain of loss can not be helped but some of the fear and the desperate bleak outlook can be offset by hope in the goodness of God. It may feel like it but we believe that it is not the end.

    Some of the hot air around recent events does seem to stem from a desire to deny the reality of suffering and death and “take control” of the situation. I do not advocate passive acceptance of illness or death but to almost pretend you can wish it away by positive thinking/action is a dreadful error.

    Sometimes there is no more practical action (other than care) to take – then all we are left with is prayer in whatever form we can manage.

  2. As a grandparent thank you
    As one who suffers thank you
    As one who while on Islay saw death the old way conducted with love and tenderness thank you
    I have witnessed so much death in my life and walked with so many down that road that I am grateful and fear neither dying nor death for that I am truly grateful
    May we all pray for a good death

  3. I never knew any of our grand parents, that I can recall. We were in care from a very young age, and both sets of grand parents had died by the time we returned home.

    There is no substitute for absent parents or grand parents, you live with the loss, even if you don’t miss them in a sense of having a loving personal relationship with them. Sadly, our Mother departed from home, when I was three years old, and I and my two siblings went into care of the Catholic Chidrens Society (now Cabrini) . We were cared for, in different institutions separated by gender, until eventually with more enlightened polices were implemented after two years of being apart, we were reunited in a family unit.

    Our carers were Sisters of Mercy and a range of different house mothers, who came and went regularly. The only permanence and stability we had, was knowing that we would be there for ever. Family relationship building and solidarity was absent and continued for some years after we left care. – In fact, when we were adults with our own families, we finally felt like siblings.

    What I remember is the Holy family being held up to us as the ideal, when we were all from broken families, and this somehow built an unrealistic expectation that once we got home- we’d all be OK. We dreamed of the day, when we’d be allowed to go home – and were really jealous when other children were taken out of care, while we were left behind.

    And there is evidence that those from broken families or care leavers, can repeat the mistakes of their forbears, that proved true in my marriage, which broke down completely, with separation and divorce. It has taken a lot of work in recent years to reestablish relationships with my children, well into their adult hood. And this goes on. One child’s marriage broke down after five years, but they have only just divorced, now that their children are teenagers.

    I have no recipe for having a happy family life, apart from the fact that my current spouse have been together for nearly 30 years and we love each other unconditionally.
    We try to be there for the grand children, without interfering, and have been successful. We were when the children were young the baby sitters, days we look back on fondly, now they are all old enough to look after themselves,. One has completed a degree, the next is just about to train as a nurse, the next is in sixth form and the twins both go to sixth form in September. Their mother has done a marvelous job of raising them and we are proud of them and of her. She is a Mormon, so different values,
    but ones that have allowed her to raise five children on her own, and do it well.

    God no doubt had a hand in all of this, and the fact that our grand children are lovely young adults is in my mind,due to his influence in their lives. Not in your face Christianity, or Mormonism, but a quiet respect and love that values everyone the same – we used to say, well brought up, and it applies in their case.

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