by Margarita Mooney on April 4, 2020
In August 2001, while on a trip to Haiti for my dissertation in sociology at Princeton University, I got a knock on my hotel room door that changed my life. My father had suffered a severe stroke. He had gone into emergency surgery, but might not survive. Frantically traveling from Port-au-Prince to Washington, DC, over the next 24 hours, I begged God to give me one more chance to say goodbye to him.
My father was still alive when I arrived, but he was intubated, and trying to recover enough strength to undergo yet another procedure that might save his life. For three weeks, my family and I kept vigil in the intensive care unit of Fairfax Hospital in Northern Virginia as my father’s condition see-sawed. At my father’s bedside, I recalled the good times. I forgave him for the not-so-good times. Although he couldn’t speak, when I said, “I know how much you love me, dad,” his green eyes welled up with tears and he nodded very slowly.
Someone had left a book about Mother Teresa’s ministry to the dying in the family waiting room. One idea that I’ve never forgotten is that it’s not so much death we fear, but rather being alone when we die. I tried to imitate Mother Teresa’s compassion for the suffering strangers I met in the hospital, sobbing with them as they lost their loved ones from car accidents, gunshot wounds to the head, or aneurisms. I celebrated with the lucky ones whose loved ones were saved by modern medicine. We shared our bread, chocolates, soup, coffee, blankets, pillows or whatever provisions someone brought us. I prayed with and for people of all nationalities, skin colors and faith backgrounds. We all hoped for a miracle to save our loved ones.
When I got the news my father was about to die on September 5, 2001, no one else from my family was in the waiting room and I began sobbing hopelessly. An African-American woman from the south threw her arms around me and held me like a child. When my family arrived, panicked, we rushed to my father’s bedside, prayed the rosary, and then watched him take his last breaths. At the funeral liturgy and burial on September 10, 2001, I cried so hard and felt so empty I thought I would never recover.
The following morning, September 11, 2001, feeling just a tiny bit better than a corpse, I dragged myself out of bed at 6 am to drive my brother to Reagan International Airport. I drove past the Pentagon on the way there and back, and fell back into a deep sleep around 8 am. When I woke up at noon, I learned the news that airplanes had crashed into both Twin Towers and they collapsed, a third plane had hit the Pentagon and it was on fire, and a fourth plane had been hijacked but brought down in Pennsylvania (most likely avoiding a strike on the White House).
Terrorism had hit the US, and I feared war would ensue. I wanted to cry for those thousands of people who had lost their lives that day. I grieved for those who had lost their loved ones without a chance to say goodbye. Grief is such a strong emotion that it can literally numb the normal sense perceptions that make us feel alive. I couldn’t cry, nor did I feel any strong emotions initially.
But questions raced through my mind, questions nearly everyone asks at a time of crisis: If God is so good and loving, why do some people die young and unexpectedly? How can we grieve our own losses while acknowledging that others have suffered even more than us? What can stop this pain and suffering?
Not only do humans die because of disease and illness, as in the case of my father, 9/11 was a stark reminder that violence ends the lives of thousands of people every day. Having spent three years studying post-war reconstruction after the bloody civil wars in Central America, and having read about the violent conflicts that plagued Haiti, I feared that the violence of 9/11 would just beget more violence, leaving more innocent victims dead and their loved ones maimed, mourning and living in misery.
Anyone who grieved a personal loss at 9/11 or grieved for others due that tragedy likely felt as I did: no action seems like a satisfactory response, and no answer to suffering and death seems to quell our sense of injustice and pain.
Death—whether from violence or illness—raises fundamental questions about humanity and about God. There’s no use in suppressing those questions, as challenging and painful as they can be. But a few words come to my mind that I have repeated again and again to students who have come to me dealing with their own mortality or the death of loved ones: You are not alone. You can’t run from pain; you have to allow yourself to feel it before you can heal it. I’m here to listen. I’ll pray for you. You did not create yourself. God loves you more than you can imagine.
In the spring of 2019, I had a tearful deathbed conversation with one of the most talented students I have ever taught in my decades in the Ivy League, John Aroutiounian, as he battled cancer. Never could I have imagined that less than a year after cancer ended John’s life at the age of 26, his father Aris would succumb quickly to respiratory illness on March 31, 2020, in New York.
As John neared his young death less than a year ago, I told him I don’t have a perfect answer to why God might let him suffer and die so young. Nor can I explain why God would allow a second tragic loss to the same family in under a year.
But I still fervently believe in words of hope I shared when I delivered John’s eulogy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Most people who are mourning the loss of loved ones in our current health crisis believe in some way that death doesn’t end our love for the departed. As a Catholic, I believe my faith can help explain the human desire to both grieve our losses and even go on loving even when we know other loved ones will also eventually leave this world.
Christian hope is grounded in faith that we are creatures of God, that he loves us, and by depending on him, we can walk through the darkness towards eternal life. By contrast, many common usages of hope equate hope with progress of some kind or another: progress in technology that will save us from mortality; progress in psychology so we can better understand ourselves and control inner lives; or progress in economic production so we can easily fulfill our bodily needs and satisfy our diverse desires for various goods. Hope then becomes synonymous with changing oneself, self-control, or perhaps together creating tools to master our environment.
Christian hope isn’t the same as this notion of progress, understood as overcoming dependency and achieving greater and greater autonomy by using reason, strategic rationality, and manipulating things with technology and science. Many uses of the word hope implicitly tell us to rely on our own powers without acknowledging our dependence on God. Such uses of the word hope have lost their connection to something sacred, a transcendent being that is not bounded by nature.
Death and pain are all around us, and it’s human to feel that pain and try to alleviate it through every possible means. But times of crisis are not times to reduce the humans to merely biological needs, as severely threatened as those needs are right now. One gift of this present COVID crisis is precisely that we are confronted with our fragility as humans, a reminder that our existence now and in the life hereafter depends on God.
All of us, regardless of our faith background or lack of faith, should come together to do whatever possible to reduce suffering and death. But, as we enter Holy Week, Christians also proclaim the existence of a God who enters history, took away our sins and broke the bonds of death. Christian faith holds out the possibility that suffering and grieving can become rejoicing not just in the afterlife but in the here and now. Because of my Christian faith, when loved ones die, I can still give thanks for the possibility of eternal salvation and go on loving in the midst of loss. My losses have purified my own heart, allowing me to experience sublime moments of joy in liturgy, personal prayer, and deeper connections with my own family and friends.
Our sorrow over death is a sign that we are made for eternity, an eternity where we shall know our loved ones by name and rejoice together in the presence of our creator. For those losing loved ones right now, our human anguish expressed in sorrowful tears can be a hopeful participation in the divine love that is infinite and eternal, a divine love that encompasses the dead and breathes joy into the living.
Although I was too distraught in the fall of 2001 to return to graduate school, I did recover my zest for life and finished my dissertation, publishing the many stories of hope in God and forgiveness for violence in my book Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora. But the hubris I once had that my Ivy League degrees would somehow magically solve world problems of hunger and violence have been shattered. We are supposed to use the gifts we have to do some good in this world, but we are also meant to lament with the suffering and learn courage from the resilient.
It’s normal that violence, illness and death would lead us to doubt and struggle to have hope. People of faith must do what we can to reduce suffering, and to console people who suffer. But people of faith have something more to offer to those in sorrow—our faith itself. Our faith and hope as Christians are neither naïve progressivism nor a pessimistic nihilism. Christian faith is in a God who entered into history to take away our sins. The root of Christian hope is not our own power, but God’s love.
A life of faith allows us to perceive a deeper reality beyond the immediate senses. I am not alone in feeling acutely the presence of my deceased loved ones—a sign of eternal life. I am not the only who one has been comforted by an angel—a sign we are not alone. I am not the only who marvels that sometimes my feeble efforts manage to do some good—a sign that there is more at work than meets the eye. My faith helps me understand these very common human experiences that are signs of the supernatural acting in this world.
Losing loved ones has caused me much pain, but so many signs of God’s love have come to me in gestures of hope and comfort from friends, strangers, and an angel. The sublime joy of love even in the midst of sorrow reminds me that there is a place where our tears will be no more.