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.