Dr. Michael Brescia is a co-founder and the Executive Medical Director (emeritus) of Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. Calvary Hospital was founded to be a place that would provide palliative care to those with advanced cancer and other terminal illnesses. For Dr. Brescia, who is a well-respected physician and devout Catholic, it was essential that the hospital be a place that fulfilled its mission with compassion, respect for the dignity of every patient, and attentiveness to patients and their families. “Our doctrine is succor, compassion, love, gentleness,” he says.
I remember hearing Dr. Brescia give a speech a few years ago in which he spoke about his own experience of mourning the death of his wife, and the emotional toll of grief. “I was married for 53 years. Beautiful, wonderful wife, perfect partner, six kids. We’re going out to a special dinner, her and I, and I’m going to tell her I love her. I’m waiting in the family room, ‘Come on Monica, let’s go.’ And she steps out of the bathroom and falls down on the ground. Ruptured aneurysm in the brain. The way she went down I knew. I knew. I said, ‘Monica, don’t go. Take me with you. Please, don’t leave me here. Don’t go.’ She left. She was gone in 10 seconds. Now that’s grief. Grief is brutal. Grief stays. It modifies, but it doesn’t go away. From the time it happened to now it’s different. But anytime anything happens in our family, I hear a knock at the door. It’s a man in a black suit, and he says, ‘Hello, I’m Grief. I was in the neighborhood. I saw you laughing, smiling with your children. I just want to let you know I’m around.’ We all went through a terrible time. But you have to come to terms. ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’ That’s it. You either accept that or not. I know Monica is in heaven. I know that. Someday the curtain will open, and she’ll be there with some of my favorite patients, and she’ll say, ‘It’s time.’ I told Monica, ‘I’ll never forget a hair on your head.’ And I haven’t.’”
Our Lord says: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Why are those who mourn blessed? It seems counterintuitive, but to mourn is to refuse death its claim of supremacy over life. Death is not simply a physiological experience that should be accepted and treated no differently than any other human experience. It is not a “health issue” that technology will someday solve. We shouldn’t try to train ourselves to be resigned to the ultimate reality of death, making the best of our lot in this life, and not allowing the sadness of loss to distract us from the enjoyment of life.
It is important to see how Our Lord reacts to the death of a loved one. When He hears the news that His dear friend Lazarus has died, He goes to the place where he is buried and He weeps before the tomb. This is mysterious, for Jesus knew all along that He would raise Lazarus from the dead. Still, He weeps, He mourns the one who has died. The reaction of Christ Jesus to the death of His friend confirms for us something that human beings have suspected all along – that death is not supposed to happen, it ought not be. Our Lord sheds genuine tears of sorrow at the tomb of Lazarus before calling him forth from that place of death, and then rejoices once more in the living company of His friend. The Lord Jesus is the One who mourns and is consoled. He reveals the terrible tragedy of death but also the ultimate power that He has over death. Fr. Simeon Leiva-Merikakis: “True mourning is a profound act of faith…. Though it feels like despair, it has a deeper and more authentic name: hope.” Dr. Brescia is a man who has seen much death in his life, and he has experienced personally the terrible suffering of mourning. His faith in Christ, however, gives him hope in the resurrection, when (please God) he and all who have died in Christ will know the consolation of a love that will never be interrupted by death again.