Laughter and tears, joy and sorrow: A reflection on the death of my father

Sister M. Clementia, FSGM, is pictured with her parents, Brenda and Carey Toalson. Mr. Toalson died suddenly on Feb. 25, 2018, at the age of 62. (Provided photo)

By Sister M. Clementia, FSGM

A severe mercy. This is what C.S. Lewis described of death to his friend in the book with the same title. At the mourning of his wife’s untimely death, Sheldon Vanauken was struck by Lewis’ description:

A mercy that was as severe as death, a death that was merciful as love.

It is a severe mercy to have loved and to have lost. Regardless, would I experience death and tragedy all over again to know this kind of love? A thousand times yes.

It is ironic yet poignant that my father died on the Second Sunday of Lent, when the Gospel of the Transfiguration was being read at Mass. The glory of resurrected life and the torment of the Cross — this was to be my dad’s destiny that day. Despite the hours of suffering and rapid decline of his earthly body, in the end it was God’s abundant mercy that shone brightly around my father on his death bed.

And for me, too, I experienced the ultimate meaning behind my name — for my heart felt crushed with having to say goodbye, yet the consolation of God’s promises of mercy during that 3:00 hour of dad’s passing showed me the merciful love of death.

HOW GOD MENDS A BROKEN HEART

Discovering that grief is mixed with consolation, joy, laughter, tears, sorrow, sadness, anger, loneliness — one sees that God uses a feast of emotions and experiences in order to mend a broken heart. Initially, the urge to run and hide outweighs the need to express and to live within the mystery of death. Once one enters into that mystery, one finds the lacerated and broken heart of Christ and His Mother. She who knows the pain of loss and he who co-suffers with us, both desire that we embrace this mercy that pierces, yet heals. It is a paradoxical mystery: Laughter, yet tears.  Joy, yet sorrow.

Healed, yet pierced.

Tears and laughter. Too many times to count, I have laughed to the point of tears . . . mostly growing up with a dad like mine. We were so inseparable that our humor could be entwined without planning and ferocious laughter, with tears, would ensue. Now, the laughter and tears have a weight to them. For I laugh at something my dad said or did or I laugh at a picture that captures a moment in time and unexpectedly tears of utter mourning begin to flow. Laughter and tears — together, they form grief.

Sorrow and joy. Joy was the hallmark of dad’s personality. Despite the suffering that seemed to define his life span in so many varied ways, he displayed a joy that was contagious. I sit back now and find such joy in knowing that God gave me such an amazing earthly father. This, too, is mixed with sorrow . . . a deep guttural sorrow that I didn’t have more time to experience this joy. Joy and sorrow — siblings of grief.

Pierced and healed. Losing dad at a young age feels like a lance within my heart. The piercing is unimaginable pain, but it is meant to transform — to let out all that is hindering me from a life of givenness. How is it that death can lead to healing? How is it that my wounds, although different from grief, can find their meaning and beauty in this particular suffering? Pierced and healed — transformative powers of grief.

STILL COMMUNICATING HIMSELF TO ME

In his book, “Behold the Pierced One,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (then Joseph Ratzinger), wrote:

“[Through] death, which, by its very nature is the end, the destruction of every communication is changed by [Christ] in an act of self-communication; and this is man’s redemption, for it signifies the triumph of love over death. We can put the same thing another way: death, which puts an end to words and to meaning, itself becomes a word, becomes the place where meaning communicates itself.”

The veil between heaven and earth remains thin. My father, though far from this world, communicates himself to me in a deep and profound way while experiencing the joys of eternal life. This man, who while on earth was the primary example of merciful love, now is able to enter into the depths of my heart and show me He who is Mercy Himself. By the merits of dad’s death in Christ, I have found my ultimate meaning and destiny — I will live the rest of my life for heaven. I will let my shattered heart embrace this severe mercy — death, yes, but merciful love in an eternity where sadness becomes joy, tears become laughter, and pain becomes healing.

Sister M. Clementia, FSGM, is a member of the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Martyr Saint George. She currently serves at St. Pius X Parish and Jordan Catholic School in Rock Island. Her father, Carey Toalson, passed away suddenly on Feb. 25, 2018, at the age of 62.

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