"DEATH AND THE AFTERLIFE"
Talk given by Mrs Margaret Strangman to a neighbouring Parish RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) Group, 23 November 1988.
You may have heard of the small boy in a 'Born Again' Christian family whose parents were caught up in the thrill of conversion to their new way of life. The father told the six year old to go and wash his hands before coming to the dinner table. The youngster said 'They're clean daddy, look.' To which the father replied 'Son, you know its the rule in this house that you wash hands before dinner. Now go and wash them. They've got germs all over them'. The small boy went off to the bathroom mumbling 'Nothing ever changes around here. All we ever hear about is 'Germs' and 'Jesus', and I can't see either one of them.'
Of course, we all know that life is changing constantly and all too often our society disregards the dignity and sacredness of life from conception to natural death.
An experience at 25
When I was twenty-five my life changed - not dramatically but I was aware that God was changing the direction of my life. A woman whom I'll never know suffered pain and loss which has affected my life to this day.
The thing that made a very deep impression on me, was being shown a bottle containing something frightening, and yet very beautiful. It was a small baby who had been miscarried at four and a half months, and I wondered that if the all-embracing love of God went to the trouble of creating this tiny human complete with fingers, toes, and his own unique set of fingerprints, yet didn't bring him to birth, how much more does he love me?
I felt compelled to do something great to show my love for God, because I realised that a passive apostalate of 'Leading a good life' is no longer sufficient for the Christian today. Christ told the Apostles to 'Go and preach the Good News of Salvation to every creature', and today we must preach the Gospel to Christians and non-Christians alike, not merely by the witness of our good deeds, but by our speech, we must also be able to defend Christian and Catholic belief in the face of atheism, materialism, and general immoral or amoral philosophies.
Recently I attended with my husband and children the funeral of' Jack Kane, a former DLP Senator. He was eighty years of age. We took our children, for although they had never met him, he had influenced their life indirectly, as it was he who started my husband on his spiritually-oriented career twenty-six years ago. Jack spent his life trying to bring Gospel values into society. Although he will be missed we know he has gone to share in the fullness of life.
In the Preface of the Mass which is celebrated at Catholic funerals, the priest says:
"Father, all powerful and ever-living God, we do well always and everywhere to give You thanks through Jesus Christ our Lord. In him, who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. Lord, for Your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling in heaven ..."
How we view death, depends on our growth in faith and real or imagined fears of the unknown. It is often very difficult for young people to face life on earth with its many trials and disappointments and fear of nuclear war, and it would seem they have no thought or hope in sharing eternal life with Christ. (The reference to nuclear war was perhaps more relevant in 1986, the year of Marg's talk, than today.)
Last year I attended the funeral of a young girl who seemed to enjoy life and had many friends. Unfortunately she just couldn't cope with her own secret pain and suffering, and ended her life tragically. I didn't know her but I know her mother and grandmother, and as I sat in the Church, the tears rolled down my face thinking of the grief they must be feeling, because I too had my child taken from me, not in death, and only for a month while I was ill. But it was a great loss none the less.
In May 1986 when my baby was eleven weeks old I went to hospital and was in a position of trying to live literally as though each moment was my last for I was suddenly very seriously ill with a heart condition known as post-partum cardio-myopathy, or heart failure. (One in 1500 women who give birth are affected by it each year). I had breastfed my other four children for several months and enjoyed the experience, so when the doctor told me I could no longer continue to breastfeed because of the treatment I was to receive, I was crushed, but of course I was too proud to let anyone see that I was upset, so I suppressed tears as well as lactation - this was not only physically but also emotionally distressing for me.
Two weeks at Calvary Hospital was a time not only for me, but also for my family, to come to terms with the slow death I was experiencing. I remembered Christ's words "I will not leave you orphans", so I had to trust that God would look after Denis and our five young children if I died. The people I had to care about were the people with me in the present moment - the doctors, nurses and hospital staff, because I wanted to live each moment I had left as fully as I could.
After two weeks at Calvary I was flown up by air ambulance to Sydney to be assessed for a heart transplant. I had not shown my grief until the day I went to Sydney and of course, once I arrived at St Vincent's the waterworks began.
I had accepted the fact that I might die and leave my husband and the children behind, but I guess that tears are a God-given safety valve that we don't always appreciate, and so the longer I suppressed the tears, the more difficult it became for me. I got better and returned home after a month in hospital.
Eleven months later (April last year) I was in hospital again. This time for major surgery. I went in on Palm Sunday, was operated on on the Monday and had a cardiac arrest on the Tuesday and if it were not for the quick thinking of the lady in the next bed (Mrs Roberts) I would have died. She alerted the nursing staff that I had had a strange turn. As I had no pulse or blood pressure I was given mouth to mouth resuscitation and heart massage, but my heart was not responding as it should so I was given electric shocks to the heart.
When the paddles were put on me I remember jumping and thinking "I hope the woman in the bed next to me does not see me, she'll think I'm stupid." I was unconscious at the time.
For the next few days I was in and out of consciousness. I knew I was very close to death and on Good Friday morning I woke up suddenly and looked at the clock. I remember thinking it's Good Friday and I haven't prayed all week. I wanted to live these last moments I had left as fully as I could. I started at one o'clock to say "O Jesus, who for love of me, did bear your Cross at Calvary, in your mercy, grant to me to suffer and to die with you'. I drifted off to sleep saying it but at three o'clock I woke up saying "No I don't mean that Lord I don't want to die just yet". Then, as if in a daydream, something strange happened. On the wall was a picture of a domestic scene with a woman and a child in a hallway and suddenly the picture changed, and there were three rooms. Our Lord was standing in the hallway behind a green velvet curtain. I couldn't see His face but there was a very bright light around Him. He put out His hand and showed me the first room where my husband and the children were. He asked "Margaret are you ready to come with me?" I replied "Not unless you can promise that Denis and the children will be alright without me." Our Lord said "I can't promise that yet" and I replied "Well, I can't come yet".
The next room was bigger. It was my Parish and Our Lord put out His hand to show me and asked "Margaret are you ready to come with me now?" I must have tickets on myself for I replied "Not unless you can promise that the Parish will be alright without me." Our Lord told me He couldn't promise that either so I said "I can't come yet." The third room was much larger. It was all the people influenced by the Parish - the wider community. I must have one super-inflated ego, for when Our Lord asked "Margaret, are you ready to come with me yet?", I bargained "Not unless you can promise that these people are ready to come too" Our lord replied "You know I can't promise that," and I told Him "I can't come yet". "Alright Margaret" he said "but you'll have to suffer a while longer". Then the picture went back to normal.
I now knew I would get better. I was no longer on the brink - between life and death. I knew death was not something to fear. Life is changed, not ended. I still had work to do.
At the beginning of our life on earth we are welcomed into God's family through Baptism - the first of seven Sacraments in the Catholic Church. To help me on my journey through death to a new life in heaven, I was privileged also to receive the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick during both my illnesses.
This sacrament not only gives peace and strength to the soul, and forgives sins, but it also has the effect of restoring the person to health if God so wills .... In my case He did will it and here I am ....
Often before someone dies, he or she leaves a last will and testimony which is put into effect on the death of the person. Jesus left His testimony too. On Holy Thursday, the night before He died, Jesus prayed: "May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me, and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was You who sent me." (John 17.21)
When we carry out the command of Jesus to "Love each other as I have loved you" we are in fact a living testimony of unity.
An encounter at Belconnen Mall
I was very busy one week a few years ago trying to get my mountain of ironing done. There were clothes drying because the week had been wet, and I was packing to go away, when the phone rang. It was my husband asking if I could get something at Belconnen Mall. It was not convenient because I had planned to go the following day. But this couldn't wait and to love my husband in this moment I had to go today. I decided I would only be gone half an hour. But as we were about to leave the Mall two of my little boys wanted to go to the toilet. I went in and impatiently joined the queue. A women I recognised came out. She looked very tired and depressed. Just for something to say I asked "How are you? I haven't seen you for ages". I wasn't really interested in an answer because I didn't know her very well and I had to get back to my work at home. But she took me seriously. She said "Well, you can see I've let myself go. I've had a breakdown". I realised she really needed to talk, and the other women were "all ears". So I took her outside into the Mall. She told me that her husband had left her for another woman. She hadn't realised he had had this relationship for quite a while and the news left her devastated and unable to cope. She was going interstate the following day. I knew there was not much I could do but I could see her suffering so much that I felt I had to do something. I told her I am a Catholic and I'll pray for her, to which she replied "Oh, would you I am a Catholic too, I haven't been to Church for years, but I really can't bring myself to go now, I feel so rejected." All this time she was crying. I did something I don't normally do. I put my arms around her and I said a quick prayer to the Holy Spirit for help. Then I said "You know, even Christ felt rejected as he was dying on the Cross for love of each of us, when He said: 'My God, My God, why have you forsaken me." Immediately the women's tears were replaced by a beautiful smile and she said "Oh thank you. I've never thought of that."
Because God allowed me to look beyond my inconvenience, to see Christ suffering in this woman, she was able to look beyond her own suffering to appreciate what Christ, in His love, suffered for each of us. I then went home happy that I was instrumental in helping her, and I got all my work done, sooner than anticipated.
As children of God, we are unique and equally deserving of protection and support, so I had a duty to comfort the woman in Belconnen Mall, and bring her God's message of love and Salvation, and she had a right to receive the message and to have the peace and freedom we get when we renew our relationship with God.
Many years ago, I had read Christ's words: "If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself daily, and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matt 16: 24-26). I really didn't feel inclined to be martyred as a missionary in a foreign land. But Christ was not asking me, nor is He asking us to be visible martyrs. We are called to be co-redeemers with Christ in all our joys and happiness of life as well as in the trials, sufferings and inconveniences that come our way each day, in order that, through us, others may be led to God. Pope John Paul II has said that "By embracing the suffering Jesus in our daily trials, we are immediately united with the Spirit of the Risen Lord and his strengthening power".
1. Share what struck you most in the talk.
2. Has the talk given you a better insight into Death and the Afterlife? If not, why not?
3. In death we enter the fullness of Life. How relevant therefore should Christ's words above (Matt 16:24-26) be to my life -
a. at home,
b. in the Parish, and
c. in the wider community.
My favourite photograph of Marg, taken at the Cotter, soon after we settled in Canberra in 1975.
a in 1975.