Yesterday, Pope Francis spoke on the importance of reflecting on the farewells in life and the larger “farewell” that comes with death and dying. This past week our prison volunteer community lost a long time and devoted volunteer and friend to many. And we have had the smaller farewells of graduation which are happier, but for many students still bittersweet, as they leave behind a place that has been like “home” for four years.
After 16 years of teaching , I know my own rhythm of gratitude and a little grief as classes come to an end, and graduating students move along into new phases of life. For me, the continuity of community at my university is a deeper structure underneath the coming and going of students each year, and often I remain in touch with some. But the larger losses of death, or even permanent goodbyes to significant people in our lives who move on, are often bigger challenges. Human beings are naturally made to live in families and communities. We are social animals raised in community and made for community and relationship, so when we lose a member of that community, there is a real rupture or tear in our lives that needs to be spoken, acknowledged, felt, and eventually healed.
In Pope Francis’s remarks, he suggests that we prepare for saying farewell. The idea that somehow we will avoid those painful goodbyes of life is an illusion. So it’s helpful to accept that life does include some “see you laters” but also some genuine goodbyes. Pretending that a “farewell” is only a “see you later” doesn’t allow us to embrace and to process the grief and pain, and also the gratitude of what relationship has meant.
We also “prepare” by entrusting our lives to God, knowing that God still has good plans for us who remain among the living, or who remain where others depart, even though we do not precisely know the nature of what God has to offer. We entrust ourselves to God and also our beloved ones into God’s hands.
Francis also suggests that we prepare for our own big farewell, i.e., for death. Here, he has in mind something like reflecting on my life now: what I am doing with my life and my time, in light of the reality of mortality? Am I really living the life that God has called me to live or getting lost in distractions or minutiae?
And, although it might sound morose, I would add that practical matters like having a will, and perhaps an outline of a plan for a funeral, or letters for intimate family members to read, can ease somewhat the transition for loved ones in case of a sudden passing.
We don’t live forever or remain with one another forever but there are actions that we can take to ease the transitions for ourselves and for others —here, the simple of act of a genuine “farewell” is central.
A summary and audio of Pope Francis’s reflections can be found here: http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-we-should-think-about-our-final-farewell