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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Coping With Death During Christmas...

It's never easy to lose someone you love. It may be even harder when that someone dies during the time of year which is supposed to be the happiest.

This Christmas Eve morning, my uncle died unexpectedly of heart failure. Although his health had been deteriorating over the last several months, when he went to the hospital complaining of trouble breathing, it was thought to be just another in a revolving door of recent hospital visits.

He apparently was having a heart attack and after being stabilized, suffered another massive bout and died.  He was 77.

Therefore, on the day millions around the world celebrate one of the most anticipated nights of the year (the eve before the birth of Christ) with family reunions, food, music and drink, my cousins were dealing with funeral arrangements for their father.  While on Christmas Day, they were coping with the grief. 

Even, as family members get older and their health begins to suffer, death is not something most people handle well, even when we think we are prepared. It is especially difficult for spouses and children, but may be just as hard for siblings. Aside from husband and wife and parent and child, there may not be a closer familial relationship than that of siblings. Depending on the age difference, the bond shared between brothers and sisters is usually very special. My uncle was my dad’s older brother.

I never had an older brother but know from having a younger one that older brothers usually protect and mentor their kid brothers and younger ones usually look up to and try to imitate the older; however dysfunctional the relationship may be.  My dad is the middle of three brothers and they had four sisters as well.  My uncle is the second of the seven siblings to die.

Two things stick out about my uncle are his propensity for hard work and his colorful perspective on life, which he was never shy about sharing with others. He arrived in New York with his wife and three young children (He had another daughter from a previous marriage) not long after my parents, brother and me had arrived from Cuba. My dad helped them get settled but my uncle was always a go-getter and soon paved the way to South Florida for his family. He was a man passionately focused on succeeding, and, like in his personal life, as two failed marriages indicate, he experienced many successes and failures along the way.  He also experienced hardships in the deaths of his second wife (many years after their divorce but still the mother of three of his children), and his third wife, who left him widowed.

I remember one time when I was a kid, he was trying to convince my dad to go into partnership with him on a gas/auto repair shop. It was at a difficult time in my father's life, who came to this country, like my uncle and countless other Cubans through the years, with a young family and the clothes on his back. After five years in New York, we relocated in Miami (Hialeah to be precise). However, despite the lure of the financial rewards of owning a business, my dad considered the time it would take away from his family and chose to get a job instead. I don't remember a baseball game he missed while my brother and I were growing up (at least not many).

In life, we make choices and those choices shape who we are and who we want to be.

As anyone of faith can attest, although we believe that life on earth is but a fleeting moment in time and we should celebrate our loved ones passing into eternity, it is never easy. Living in the faith and hope we will be reunited one day, doesn’t take away the pain we experience because we miss their physical body.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul writes, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the certainty of things not seen."

After a loved one dies, we often hear consoling words like, “They are in a better place,” or “They are finally resting.” But, only in faith can that alleviate our grief. After all, as St. Paul says, faith is based on hope; a confident hope that gives us surety, as certain as the sun rising every morning, but hope nonetheless.

We are not the final arbiter and can only hope that our judgment, and the judgment of our loved ones, is based on faith and the love we shared with others and not on our failures, which in my case far outweigh my successes.

Even with faith, we are not immune to pain, grief, suffering, and, at times, feelings of desolation. Just ask Mother Theresa of Calcutta and, even more poignantly, our Lord, who we are called to imitate and while dying on the Cross asks, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in possibly the ultimate example of His Humanity.  But then, shortly before taking His final breathe, says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Faith, like love, is a choice and not a feeling. We choose to love and we choose to believe. A feeling may go away. A choice, which we commit in our heart, doesn’t.

Goodnight, Tio Nando. May we meet again someday...

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