Reflecting on My Dad’s Early, Grace-Filled Death
Letter from Sister Christina Marie Neumann
Last October, when my dad came up to visit, with my mom, I never thought it’d be the last time I’d have the chance to show him to his room, where he’d be staying on our men’s floor at St. Anne’s, the care facility where I work. He did mention that he wasn’t feeling his best, but we blamed it on a new medication he was taking. Little did we know that he had pancreatic cancer and would die less than two months later.
I don’t know if you have had to face the death of a parent, dear sisters in Christ, but, I’ll share with you my experience with its many facets, both painful and beautiful. Before I start, though, I will mention that it is precisely our faith in Christ, our knowledge of His victory even over death, that revolutionizes such an experience.
I live a good five to six hours from where I grew up (and where the rest of my immediate family still resides). I moved away when I was in my mid-twenties, entering a Franciscan community of Sisters in eastern North Dakota.
This past Thanksgiving weekend, my dad ended up in the hospital. He was still suffering from unexplained blood clots. My mom called to tell me he was going through testing, that there were a few possibilities, one of which was cancer. I dismissed that, assuming it was one of the other ailments; he had suffered from various things before. He had beat cancer on two occasions years ago, and since the last battle, had been facing some residual effects of the chemo. It must be something of that sort. It sure couldn’t be cancer, right? I really was far from admitting to myself that this would be life-changing. I loved my dad, but there wasn’t much I could do but pray for him and supportive. Plus, I figured it wasn't a huge deal and that he would get through this.
I got a call the next day. My dad had been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer. Treatment might give him some more weeks of life, but there would be no cure. I remember I had spent much of the morning (before getting that call) making gingerbread cookies for our residents, helped by one of our visiting Sisters who was spending the long weekend with us. I really don’t remember much else about that terribly life-changing day.
The weeks that followed went so fast! It was three weeks from the day my dad was released from the hospital to the day that he died. I was able to spend some of that time with him and my family, making two trips “home” by train on those wintry nights.
There is so much to say here that I cannot hope to contain in a letter, dear sisters, so much to say of our relationship! My dad really had played a key role in my moral development, sharing with me his deep sense of duty, or responsibility to “do the right thing,” and so much more. He also taught me a lot through reading countless books to me in the evening, after his long day at work, when supper was over (if we weren’t on dish duty, in which case it would have to wait).
Together, through these books, we traveled the world! Starting with the “Little House” books when I was in second grade, all the way into my college years, we took up our “positions,” he in his chair and I, sitting on the baby blue couch. I was able to learn about so many different things, with a person I loved and who loved me; this “reading together” shaped and enhanced my vocabulary; it’s no wonder I ended up majoring in written communications! I still remember his response one time, after I had asked him what one thing after another meant: “Why don’t you let me finish the sentence first; then you’ll maybe have a better idea!” We had so many
beautiful moments together, through reading and other activities.
I guess a beautiful life prepared my dad for a beautiful (if unexpected) death. He was barely 68. He had multiple visits from a number of priests, and even had Mass offered in the living room with him less than two weeks before his death. My dad was so well prepared for “the hour of [his] death.” He was surrounded by his family, and lovingly attended to by a retired hospice nurse (his wife and my mother), and had a wonderful hospice team checking in on him, not to mention countless people who wanted to visit him.
The morning that I arrived in on the train on my second trip home was the last morning of my dad’s life. Arriving at the house, I went in and greeted him. After speaking a little to him, I went and laid down for a nap; I was sleep-deprived after a night on the train.
I got up on time to see a priest friend of my parents just on his way out. After Father was out the door, I took my embroidery bag, containing thread, needles, and the towel I was working on for the gift shop at my workplace and sat on the couch near my dad’s hospital bed. He was breathing quite loudly and almost comatose. I greeted him but soon fell to silence; extra words had no place at this monumental time.
In just a few minutes, I realized that my dad was no longer breathing audibly. In fact, I was not sure if he was breathing at all. I ran and got my mom, youngest brother, and sister. We all made it back into the family room where my dad was in time for his last breaths.
It would have been harder to see his last breaths if I hadn’t been prepared by these three weeks. Watching him decline physically had been so difficult, so sad for me. Every day, while I was away, I would only hear from my mom of how he was getting weaker and weaker. Seeing and hearing about this was one of the hardest aspects of the whole experience. At this point, asI sat in the same room as my dad, I had seen him get steadily worse. I had also seen, however, the astonishing amount of grace he had received, and how beautifully he was prepared for hisdeath. He had so many blessings of the Church, including multiple visits from priests known to our family. He had visits from so many friends, former co-workers, and people he had touched. I was privileged to have sat, one on one, with my dad during those last minutes of his earthly life. It is such a consolation to know that he was so ready.
Central to this “preparedness” was my dad’s belonging to the Church. As a baptized Catholic, he had so many opportunities to help him on his way. He had Viaticum, food for the journey. His journey was so beautiful. Although I certainly wouldn’t have wanted my dad to die before reaching age 70, if it had to happen, I could not have asked for a better experience! It was so grace-filled!
The consoling knowledge of the “communion of saints” continues to support me on my journey of grief. It is wonderful to know that those that we love need not be dismissed as “dead and gone.” There is the wonderful Reality that life goes on, beyond the grave. I can hope that my dad is “putting in a good word for me” now, that he is currently experiencing reality more fully than the rest of us in the Church here on earth.
The support toward our family, during and after my dad’s illness, was amazing. It is so beautiful to belong to a larger “family,” that of the Church, to be surrounded by so many people who care deeply and put this concern into action.
I hope and pray that when my time (and yours) comes to leave this world, that I can be as well prepared and surrounded by love as my dad was.
Although we are sad at his early death (tears are brimming in my eyes as I write this), we could not have asked for a more blessed, grace-filled experience.
I wonder what it will be like when we meet again!
Sister Christina Marie Neumann, OSF
About the Writer: Sister Christina Marie Neumann
Sister Christina Marie Neumann is a Franciscan sister serving at St. Anne’s, a home for the elderly and disabled in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Here, she works in various roles, including receptionist, sacristan, and occasional aide, as well as assisting with communications/public relations for the facility. She also enjoys holding some activities with the residents there, including read-alouds, Bible studies, and occasional “therapeutic baking.” Along with her other duties for the Home, Sr. Christina also writes a weekly blog on behalf of her religious community, sharing thoughts and reflections from daily life on Our Franciscan Fiat. Sr. Christina made her first vows in 2008, and her final profession in 2013, at her community’s provincial house in Hankinson, North Dakota. Before entering religious life, Sr. Christina received a BA in communications from St. Catherine’s in St. Paul. She is the oldest of four children, and grew up in suburban St. Paul.