In February 2005 I attended a funeral Mass with my husband. His cousin had just lost his young wife to cancer. Lori left behind a grieving husband and three small children (ages seven, five, and nine months). This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. Lori and Tommy had both attended Catholic grade schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. They met at a football game between St. Philippine Duchesne High School (hers) and Chaminade College Preparatory School (his). From that moment on, Tommy was determined to win the cheerleader’s heart. He would have to wait six more years for that first date, but eventually the two started dating, married and began a family.
They were the picture-perfect couple. They were supposed to raise half-a-dozen children, make it to their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and live to see their great-grandchildren. They were supposed to set the standard for the rest of us by living out what it means to be a strong Catholic family. Tragedy wasn’t supposed to strike here. But when Lori was pregnant with their third child, she was diagnosed with cancer.
Lori’s funeral Mass was the first Catholic funeral I had attended since beginning my journey into the Church. With the loss of my own father just a year earlier, grief was still like a familiar piece of clothing that fit all too well. Enough time had passed that I was able to step out of the garment of grief long enough to reflect and process my thoughts. But the loss was recent enough that I still hungered for a deeper understanding of Catholic teaching on the communion of saints and prayers for the dead.
I still had days in which I wondered how any of us could truly go on after a loved one passes away. As Protestants, we held to the belief that we were cut off (until we die) from the one we loved. Sure, we have Jesus to get us through, and we consoled ourselves with the thought that one day we would all be together again. But that had to be enough to see us through the dark night of grief. It seemed to me that something was lacking in Protestant theology, and it was obvious that whatever that "something" was, every person who goes through grief should have access to it.
For Catholics, there is the communion of saints. For Catholics, there is unending love and intercession. For Catholics, there is a mysterious moment every time they go to Mass. In that moment the veil lifts, heaven touches down, and through the Most Blessed Sacrament, we are joined with Our Eucharistic Lord and with the faithful who have gone before us. We reach across the Great Divide and hold hands once again. In that moment, we can almost hear the prayers of that Great Cloud of Witnesses (as it says in Hebrews chapter 12). And we know that they are praying for us.
We are not on our own in this valley of tears.
Those who have known us and loved us most dearly are even now alive-in-Christ and praying that we will have every grace we need in order to run the course marked out for us.
In the four years that have passed since Lori’s death, Tom has picked up his cross and kept on going. He is raising their three children, has published two inspirational children’s books and has started a publishing company. He draws great strength from his eternal connection to Lori.
"There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about Lori and talk to her out loud,” he says.
When a loved one dies, the chasm that separates us seems so great – and yet we know it really can’t be much of a distance. Someone we have known intimately, someone we have loved deeply has crossed the divide and passed into eternity, and that overwhelming truth brings heaven very close. The truth of the communion of saints is written in our hearts.
It is precisely in that moment – in that valley of the shadow of death – that we cling tightly to the words of the Creed. I believe in the communion of saints. I believe in the resurrection of the body. I believe in life everlasting. Thank God, I believe!
And until the day we lay our own cross down, we keep on going, and if we listen very carefully, we can hear the cheering from the other side.
Tommy and Lori continue to be that strong Catholic family. That’s the irony of it all. Tragedy did not have the final word. The cheerleader is still cheering, only the team she is rooting for is a team of four.