A Grief Observed

I like many of you am grieving these days. I will not speak directly to it here, but I think you know why I am grieving.

I don’t do grief well. But I have learned to study it in others and thus find my way.

My father died more than 10 years ago, and except for essential papers related to his estate, I simply boxed up most of his papers and stored them in the attic of my rectory for future attention. At long last I am sorting through those boxes. Among his effects were also many papers of my mother’s, who died about two years before he passed away.

I discovered many things that moved me. As I read through the various papers, I was reminded that many of us never really know the pain and grief that others bear. In particular, I was struck by the poignant file that was simply labeled, “Mary Anne.” (A photo of my father and sister is at right).

My sister Mary Anne was tragically afflicted with mental illness from her earliest days. My parents knew there was trouble early on when she did not speak a word until she was well past two, and even then only at home. She had a pathological shyness that led her to shut down in the presence of others outside the home. The counselor at her elementary school spoke of Mary Anne as “disturbed” and insisted on psychiatric care for her by the time she was six.

Discretion and brevity limit what I intend to share here, but Mary Anne was deeply troubled. By age 13, she had to be hospitalized and spent the remainder of her life in 15 different mental hospitals and 6 different group homes. She was often able to visit with us and even stay over on weekend passes. She had stretches during which she was stable, but soon “the voices” would return, as would the dreams that afflicted her. Her psychotic episodes often led to running away, outbursts of violence, and attempts at suicide.

Through all of this, my parents fought very hard for her, and to be sure she got the care she needed. This often led them to various courts and generated much correspondence with insurance companies, state mental health officials, and private hospitals where she was confined. Indeed, during her lifetime my parents made many sacrifices for Mary Anne, both financial and personal, to ensure her care. At one point in the early 1970s, aware that Mary Anne felt isolated in the house with three brothers and desperately wanted a sister, my parents even went so far as to seek to adopt a baby girl.  They filed paperwork and came very close, but the plan ultimately fell through. The baby sister we never had …

Maryanne died in a fire in the winter of 1991 at the age of 30. She likely had a hand in that fire; she had set fires before when the “voices” told her to. I could see the pain on her face as her body lay in the casket and I wept when I saw her. The funeral director explained that there was little he could do since her skin had been singed in the fire. She had clearly been crying when she died—a grief observed.

My father wrote this on the frontispiece of her file:

Mary Anne Pope was our first child.
She led a tortured existence during a short life
and fought hard against great odds.
We remember her for her courage

And as I read my own parents’ touching recollections of Mary Anne, I could not help but moved, too, by their own pain. Such a heavy grief punctuates each page. I give them great credit for the fact that they insulated the rest of us, their three sons, from the most of the dreadful details of poor Mary Anne’s struggle. They kept their pain largely to themselves and stayed available to us. It is true that there were episodes we had to know about, but as a young boy and teenager I saw in my parents only strength and stability when it came to this matter. I saw my father’s grief and pain for the first time as he wept, standing there at the funeral home looking at my sister—It was a grief observed.

After my sister’s death, my mother’s grief grew steadily worse, causing her struggle with alcohol to worsen as well; she became increasingly incapacitated. Her life ended tragically and suddenly on a cold February day. My father had looked away for only a brief moment, going into the kitchen to make a sandwich, and mom wandered out into a snowstorm. Incapacitated by alcohol and disoriented, she died of hypothermia. We found her body only after three days of searching, when the snow melted a bit. She had died almost a mile away, near the edge of the woods—In her death it was another a grief observed, it was her grief.

My father never quite forgave himself for letting her slip away. The open front door, a first sign of trouble; the searching on a dark, frigid, and stormy night; the steady awareness, “She’s gone.” Those memories haunted him. In the months that followed, he often wondered how he could go on when half of him was gone. He, too, was gone within two years. His congestive heart failure worsened and he died in 2007, literally and figuratively of a broken heart—a grief observed.

All these thoughts swept over me as I looked through this file labeled simply, “Mary Anne.” I too am grieving

There is an old spiritual that says, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus.” And it is a mighty good thing that he does know. Sometimes the grief is too heavy even to share, even to put into words. But Jesus knows all about our troubles. There is a beautiful line in the Book of Revelation that refers to those who have died in the Lord: He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Rev 21:4-5)

For my brave parents and courageous sister, who all died in the Lord but who died with grief, I pray that this text has already been fulfilled, and that they now enjoy that everything is new—a grief observed no longer.

Requiescant in pace

I made this video on what would have been my parents 50th anniversary. I picked the song “Cold enough to snow,” since it spoke to my Father’s grief in losing mom on that snowy night.

31 Replies to “A Grief Observed”

  1. Thank you for sharing your family’s story. I pray for you! Your writing has made a great difference for our family’s faith.

  2. Your video was very touching. We must never lose hope, Father. But we have to allow the feelings to be felt.

  3. A faithful, loving family, persevering through the worst of trials. I will remember you and the souls of your parents in prayer.

  4. Life definitely has a way of squeezing us of all of our tears, then it goes after our sighs until those are gone too, numb and dazed has us walking around, what time is it, the day turns into night, who noticed, life what is that and we have no answer except to live.

  5. “And the Lord who is your leader, he himself will be with thee: he will not leave there, nor forsake thee: fear not, neither be dismayed.” Deuteronomy 31:8

    Father, may your grief lessen with the knowledge that your parents and sister have found their peace with the Lord. Rejoice for them because their suffering is over.

    God bless you and keep you safe.

  6. Thank you, Monsignor Pope, for giving us this beautiful story.
    Jennifer warnes…i think we’re probably the same age.
    I lost my dad a few years ago, think about him every day, especially looking at this.
    God bless you and may the Immaculata protect you.
    I will be attending a Holy hour for priests on fridays in reparation.

  7. Dear Father, we share your grief. Prayed rosary. May our Mother guard and protect all priests and comfort all who are in pain.

  8. Msgr.,

    My deepest condolences to you. I too have experienced sudden deaths and do understand the difficulties we encounter in our humanness when we observe, process, and heal in times of grief.

    May God Bless you.

  9. You could not grieve if you did not first love. Praise God for your soft heart.

  10. Monsignor Pope,

    They don’t call this life “a Vale of Tears” for nothing. May your sister, father and mother rest in the Lord’ eternal peace and joy. They now know how much He always loved them. May His consolation be with you always.

  11. Your post seems like the history of my family. The grief has been there my whole life. I didn’t die early. At 71 I am still suffering from mental illness and grieve over the fact that I will never know what it is like to have a normal mind. Is the only answer that I have to long for death so that my grieving stops?

    1. That’s common Kathy, many people will grieve over what could have been, I have a family member that gets in those moods if only I could go back, life could have been so much different, etc. etc. well you can’t, it is what is, today is today and you have to live it so lets stay in the present and the more the person does is less torture, life is now and coping is the best any of us can do when life cannot go by fast enough. a day can seem like a year but God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts, his timetable definitely not our timetable. The Lord understands you and says, I’m with you always and it might not be pretty but we’ll get through this together and he’s been in alot of tough situations but he never leaves and will never leave no matter the circumstance, God bless.

    2. Kathy: “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.
      If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose.
      I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, [for] that is far better.
      Yet that I remain [in] the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.
      And this I know with confidence, that I shall remain and continue in the service of all of you for your progress and joy in the faith,
      so that your boasting in Christ Jesus may abound on account of me when I come to you again.” Philippians 1:21-26

      Rest assured your suffering is also being put to use, as was St Paul’s. And long for Heaven, where we will all be healed.

      If you have the time and energy, read ‘Fulfillment of All Desire.’ God used it to bring me to terms with my own grief and suffering.

      I’ll pray for you!

    3. Kathy, forgive me offering “advice”; I mean it only as respect and encouragement.
      Your suffering may be your charism. Please move more deeply into the mystical truth of redemptive and, even, reparative suffering, given to Christ, joined to Him on His cross. You may find a meaning and grace for the rest of your journey. At the very least, your intercession has such power! God knows His Church needs it now!

  12. Beautiful. The thing that stands out in your story and is confirmed in the pictures was, they kept their pain largely to themselves and made themselves available to all of you.

    This takes heroic work. It is a selfless sacrificial gift that keeps on giving.


  13. Should have put the video at the beginning; we can’t see it through the tears. God bless you and your family.

  14. I am speechless. Really- only He knows. Oh, this Love, and this Pain, on the Tree where He hung. ‘Tis His Blood and our Life, and no words can explain…
    May His ineffable Love be a Balm on your heart. On your grief, observed…

  15. I remember when you talked about you family about a year ago and the story of your sister and mother made a permanent imprint in my mind. The part about Mary Ann tore me up. Indeed, a very sad story that can easily bring the hardest of us to tears.

    I have a similar history as your sister: hospitals, homes for the mentally ill, medications, and now in the 4th quarter of life. Eventually, I extricated myself from the institutions in 2004 and live on my own. Many who are in those places for life have more serious mental maladies than I do. Plus, I may get kick back on this but quite a few become institutionalized which in the long run doesn’t so them any favors.

    A touching piece on the subject of grief in the Pope Family.

  16. You are so kind in sharing your life with us. Thank you. As you said “nobody knows the troubles we’ve seen….”. I have genetic mental weakness in my family now down to my children, grandchildren and probably now my three great-great children. It is messing up their lives in different ways and conditions. I pray that God will remove this. What brave parents you had.

  17. Msgr, I said it before on your blog and I’ll say it again: You authored a ‘Catholic Perspective’ “CareNote” entitled “Overcoming the Fear that Diminishes Us,” copy write 2011. As the publisher of CareNotes state, finding the right words at the right time can make all the difference. Indeed your words did – and still do.

    There’s no telling how many tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people, read your words. There’s no telling how many souls you have saved or restored hope in because of the Cross you (and your family) bore and continue to bear, Romans 8:28.

    It was love, not grief, that brought tears to my eyes after reading and watching this posting. How true it is, love is stronger than death.

    Peace be with you, Monsignor.

  18. Ahh, Monseignor, thank you for sharing your grief. You are a great pastor, and sharing your story might help the rest of us. I, too, am grieving various things. This reminds me to forge ahead. I keep trying to remind myself this world is transitory and there is something wonderful for those who strive ahead for what waits. Thanks, again, for sharing.

  19. God bless you, your surviving family and your ministry, Msgr. Pope.

    Eternal rest grant unto Msgr. Pope’s departed parents and sister, O Lord and let the Eternal Light shine upon them. May their souls along with the souls of all our faithful departed dear ones, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

  20. This is one of the most touching, honest,and moving pieces I have ever read. I read you faithfully, Msgr. Pope, and you have no idea what blessed nourishmnt you are to the Church, especially in this time of such painful testing.

  21. Your story and family moved me to tears. May God’s peace and love surround you, and may Jesus hold you in His loving arms. “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

  22. Hello, I’m new to your blog and this is the first of your articles that I’ve read.
    I believe your mom and dad were close in age to my own so it was very relatable for me.
    While growing up, and even later, we often aren’t aware of the sadness, challenges and sacrifices our parents had to endure.
    I’m grateful you opened Mary Anne’s file and shared your heartfelt thoughts and prayers with us.

  23. Msgr. Pope, thank you so much for sharing so candidly about these losses in your life. I have had my own share of tragic losses which I will not go into here, other than to say that I have found that each new one brings up all of the others. And some are harder to “move through” as I am sure is true of your sister’s passing. I have found that true of the death of a younger brother by suicide. You’re in my prayers.

  24. Dear Fr. Pope – I’ve just discovered you on EWTN discussing homosexuals, the church scandal etc. I found your website and have read some of your blogs, read about your sister and mom/dad, and just watched the video on what would have been their 50th anniversary. I’m gay trying to live a chaste life – recently returned from Italy/Assisi/San Giovanni Rotondo etc. So grateful I feel the presence of Jesus and slowly growing in the Lord and away from past vices. Only want to connect with you, say Hi, and look forward to reading your blog. The McCarrick scandal and now what’s happening in PA and likely the entire world is so sad – but where there is great sin, greater grace abounds. God Bless You & thanks for creating this website – look forward to visiting it more. Mark

  25. No words — Just tears — what faith your family has and had — Thank you

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