About six months ago I stumbled upon a youtube video about death and grief that planted a seed of healing within me. As silly as this sounds the video was about cats. Yes, I am aware of how cliche it is to fall into a youtube k-hole watching cat videos. But whether you believe me or not I was not researching funny cat videos. I was researching death and how both humans and animals process grief.
The video shows a dead cat laying on his bed. He has been brought back home at the recommendation of the veterinarian as a method of helping the other cats in the home understand and accept that their brother has died. The veterinarian suggested this so that the cats do not enter into a constant state of anxiety wondering what has happened to their brother and if he is ever coming back home. The video shows the slow realization that takes place among the other cats as they surround their brother. Their senses, their intuition, and their physical experience all align to bring instant clarity about what has occurred. The entire video is peaceful and reminiscent of a cathartic Irish wake like the ones I attended while living in Brooklyn.
An Irish wake begins with women washing the body of their loved one who has died and preparing it for viewing in the living room. The body is covered in linen. Candles and pipes filled with tobacco surround the body. Each man who pays his respects will pick up the pipe and blow smoke to clear the air. The body is never left alone until the burial. Just before closing the coffin, the mourners kiss the deceased and say farewell.
I think about death and grief as often as I do because I have been thousands of miles away every time a loved one died. I have lived on the road on and off since 2011. A combination of work opportunities and wanderlust have taken me cross country and around the world three times over. I have been present during the illness and decompensation stages and continued to support them through frequent emails, handwritten letters, and phone calls. But I have not been there when they died, and I have not been there to grieve with others or attend a wake or funeral. Unlike the cats in the video, I found no clarity or peace in the moment. Death came to me via text or voicemail while I was in a new city or foreign country with no one around me but strangers. It took an extraordinarily long time for me to bring my awareness in line with the reality of these losses. It was almost as if my body was ten steps ahead of my heart and mind.
My great uncle, Msgr. Celsus Collini was my soul mate, spiritual guide, and teacher. So often powerful spiritual connections are given ridiculous romantic connotations and assigned to whatever partner we humans happen to be with at the time. But what about those people we meet who see no limitations for us? Those people who know the strength of our roots before our feet have ever touched the ground? The connection we had was a clear and straightforward arrangement between the two of us long before we met in human form. He was to place me in the sunlight, pour water on me, and talk me into existence, possibility, and self-esteem. I was to listen to him, his words of encouragement and his confessions and offer sanctuary and acceptance.
Neither of us ever felt as if we fit in anywhere. These feelings were shared many times in conversation over his tiny kitchen table as we ate homemade toasted bread with honey. He spoke of always being surrounded by people and yet still feeling lonely. I understood that all too well. Perhaps it inspired my life on the road. If I am continually moving, and always the new person, then I never really have to be close to anyone.
Near the end of his life, I spent three days beside his hospital bed listening to his breathing, listening to his fears, and eventually listening to his confession. It was the middle of the night when he told me that he needed to unburden himself and that he did not feel comfortable speaking to another priest. At the end of his confession, he turned to me fearfully expecting harsh judgment or shame. Instead, I told him that it sounded as if he did the best he could with the tools he had at the time and that nothing he did sounded all that bad. He was just a human after all. I watched as something within him loosened and broke free. Our conversation shifted, and he told me that he was very concerned that he would not go to heaven when he died. I nodded in understanding as I often felt that way about myself and then quickly came up with another solution. I told him that we could make a deal. If he got to heaven and they would not let him in, he should turn right around and be reborn. I told him that in the next lifetime I would be his mom and we would get things right. Again, I witnessed another part of him break free as he agreed in an instant. I told him that I only needed one thing from him.
I told him that when he died, I wanted miracles all the time. I wanted chairs moving across the room. I wanted visions. I wanted to hear voices and know that the entire universe loved me. He thought about it for a minute, nodded and said, “I can do that.”
He died a month later, and I was 3,000 miles away. I poured myself into work. I poured myself into my spiritual practice. I poured myself into a grief that I could not seem to touch with both hands. And then the miracles started unfolding. I began to experience things that even the most superstitious person would not categorize as a coincidence. They pushed me in a direction that stripped me of my masks and worn out ideas of myself and the world around me. They clarified my purpose in this life and set me on a course that I would never have chosen for myself. They held and sustained me through moments of profound loss, doubt, fear, and pain.
Closure surrounding his death remained elusive. I listened to his voicemails all the time. Anytime something interested happened to me I went to email him. My mind and heart were still not walking alongside my body.
When his sister, my beloved Nonna was diagnosed with cancer, she asked me to be with her through the end of life stage. She had seen me care for her brother and wanted that connection and care herself. I am the granddaughter who was fiercely independent. I am the granddaughter who traveled the world. I am the granddaughter who pursued education and professional advancement over marriage and children. I was the thing she could not quite understand but loved fiercely. In our most private conversations, she told me how incredibly proud she was of me and how in awe she was of my courage. She shared with me that despite her deep love for my grandfather and her pride and joy at having been a mother to six children, she always wondered what her life would have been like had she attended college and graduate school or had traveled independently the way I had. Our extended family dynamics being as strained as they are, I was told harshly and clearly that I was not allowed to be with my Nonna at the end of her life. I sat with the belligerent decision making of my family for 24 hours almost in a daze. Then my Nonna called. She wept openly like a child. Between sobs, she told me that she didn’t understand how someone else could decide this for her. Her sadness shifted to anger, and I felt a voice leave my mouth that was guided by something much bigger than me.
I told her that I was with her now and always. I told her that I was right beside her and would be there when she took her last breath. I told her that it was all okay and that I wasn’t angry and I did not want her to be angry either. I told her that I knew it would not be long before I would see her again. I asked her if she believed that. She told me that she did. We said I love you. We said goodbye. And that was the last time we spoke. I sent her a card the next day. It arrived at her home the day before she died and was by her bedside when she passed.
This time grief was different for me. The night before my Nonna died I felt her in my home. It was late in California and even later in New York, but I had a strong urge to call my mother and tell her that my Nonna was going to pass away that night. My mom. My sweet, generous, exhausted mom who was the primary caretaker for all the older adults in my family. How could I call her in the middle of the night with this news and say it was just a feeling? How would that help her? It wouldn’t. But a good night of uninterrupted sleep would help her. So I went to bed treading water in the grey area of anticipatory grief. In the morning I had a dream.
My Uncle Celsus was standing in front of me as a much younger man. His short sleeve button down shirt untucked with his hands resting in his pants pockets looking at me over his glasses. He reached out his arms and embraced me. His hug surrounded my entire soul and drew me in, not simply to him, but to the heartbeat of the universe. I was no longer Casey who does yoga and has a job and lives in California. I was everything. I was him. I was my Nonna. I was a particle of dust and a star in the sky. He held me for a long time, and I knew that my Nonna was dead. Sometimes when we ask for miracles, we get far more than we bargained for. I wanted chairs moving across the room and instead I was given Grace to carry me through grief. I was woken up suddenly out of this dream by a phone call from my mother. She told me my Nonna had just died.
It is not easy for me to admit this but I walked through periods of deep depression after the deaths of those closest to me. As cliche as scrolling through youtube looking for cat videos is, making poor life choices as a result of depression and unresolved grief is far more common. In my sadness, I dated two wildly unhealthy people that provided me a temporary distraction from the grief waiting just outside my door. I allowed my energy to deplete constantly. I went through periods of painful insomnia and periods of sleeping 12 hours per day. I had no fight in me. Life challenges would present themselves, and I would simply let them drop to the floor. At the time I misinterpreted this as surrender. But the reality is that grief was taking up so much space within me that I was absent from my life.
Since that time more loved ones have died. If you have read this journal you know, I often speak of Dan, and how both his life and death changed me to my core. Though these losses have at times seemed overwhelming, they have each revealed to me the way in which grief will transform us when we acknowledge it and when we run from it.
Last night my partner and I sat in bed whispering about our recent loss. Both of us want to begin the process, to allow that soul to leave our consciousness with peace and to let it transform us but at the moment we are still numb. If I have learned anything from the five deaths of those closest to me, it is this: you can only invite grief; you can’t force it. As much as I crave the experience of the cats in the youtube video, to walk around death and allow all of my senses to align, that is not what we have been given. But we do have one another, we have a safe space to talk about it, and we have trust in the unfolding of this process. One day at a time.
“What do you think God will say to you when you die and get there?”
“Welcome. You struggled a lot, flopped a lot, and came back time and again. You said you depended on me for grace and strength and help. Here it is, welcome. You didn’t make it into the ranks of heroes; I did not expect you to, or to the contemplatives, again I did not plan that for you. I just planned for you to be who you are, to struggle, to work with what I gave you, falter and fall and get up to fight and work all over again.”
– Monsignor Celsus Collini