I have thought of this memory often since his passing; the image of my dying father on his knees will stay with me forever, teaching me a profound lesson each time the memory comes.
My father died from cancer four years ago. He had suffered for most of a decade, but never more than in the last few months of his life. During that time, he was often depressed, increasingly frail, and suffering from pain that eventually left him chairbound. I made trips to Cleveland every few weeks to support him, ease the caregiver burden on my mom and sisters, and perhaps most importantly, share what precious time he had left.
One Saturday I encouraged my mom to leave for a while, to get out of the house and take a break from the rigors of caregiving. Dad was in bed that day, often asleep. Every little while I would duck my head into the bedroom to see if he needed anything, and on one such occasion found him kneeling next to his bed, hands clasped in prayer with rosary beads between his fingers.
This was a moment that immobilized me, one in which I was first flustered and then transfixed by the beautiful sight my father made — a frail man in a broken body who somehow found the strength to drop to his knees and pray. I still can’t describe how deeply I was moved or how my own soul was pierced in that moment. I remember not wanting to disturb his prayer time and choosing to sit in the next room to pray with my father for all his intentions; to join him in whatever way his heart and soul needed.
I have thought of this memory often since his passing; the image of my dying father on his knees will stay with me forever, teaching me a profound lesson each time the memory comes. Oftentimes, it also makes me think of Jesus. I see him at Gethsemane, where his suffering heart was pierced with the knowledge he would die soon. He speaks to Peter, James, and John: “My soul is filled with sorrow, even to death. Remain here and stay awake.” Then Jesus fell to his knees and began to pray, Mark writes, “praying that if possible, this hour might pass without striking him.” (Mark 14: 34-36)
Jesus was filled with sorrow — he was grieving. In his moment of suffering, he asks his friends to do something for him: “Remain here and stay awake.” As a daughter, I know I was trying to remain awake for my father in those moments four years ago. And as a professional bereavement clinician, it strikes me that when I sit across from someone who has a broken heart as they grieve the death of a loved one, one of the greatest gifts I can offer is to remain awake with them in places of terrible suffering; to bring a prayerful heart and wide-open hands to help them hold the weight of their loss.
If we continue to read Mark’s gospel, we learn that Peter, James, and John fell asleep on Jesus in his time of need! In the most heart-wrenching words, he asks them: “Couldn’t you stay awake for even one hour?” What a different world it could be if we all could stay awake to one another when we hurt, when we suffer, when we grieve. What if we could stay awake and truly listen, stay awake and be kind, stay awake and offer comfort, stay awake and fall to our knees and pray?
How might we change the world?
Annie is a Bereavement Clinician at Cornerstone of Hope Columbus.