“He died alone!” “We were not with her!” These lamentations are heard daily as people recount the most bitter experience of losing a loved one to COVID-19. This cry from the heart expresses the deep suffering the crisis creates. But dare we ask the question: Did they really die alone?
Do we not say when we pray the Apostle’s Creed that we believe “in the communion of saints?” What does that expression mean? Is it just a bit of ancient poetry preserved in the amber of our prayed formulas over the centuries?
In the biography of St. Clare of Assisi, we read a powerful description of the vigil preceding her death. As her end approaches, she speaks words of confidence and says to one of the sisters keeping watch: “Do you see, O child, the King of glory Whom I see?”.…. And behold a multitude of virgins in white garment entered, all of whom wore gold garlands on their heads. One more splendid than the others walked among them and from her crown…such a splendor came forth that it turned the night within the house into daylight. She moved toward the bed…and bending over her most lovingly gave her a most tender embrace.” (Legend of St. Clare, 46.)
Here we have a testimony that Clare—at the hour of her death—was surrounded by holy women who were already in the “communion of saints” and that the Queen of Heaven herself was with them. Do we think such death bed favors are only for saints? Can we take some comfort in the hope that our loved ones also experience this final act of favor, a presence from beyond that brings assistance to cross that mysterious threshold?
The Irish believe in the reality of what they call “thin places,” places where the veil between earth and heaven is so porous that we may experience the “other side” clearly. The moment of death is the ultimate thin place. There, beyond our ability to see or to imagine, those whom we love and honor who “have gone before us in faith” move toward us in joyful welcome.
These countless COVID-19 victims were not alone. In that final hour, the veil fell away and they moved forward surrounded by ancestors of their family and of their faith. God has wiped away their tears. Can this faith also help to dry ours?