Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Monday, May 21, 2018

"I’m not afraid of being dead. I’m just afraid of getting dead." -- Marietta Tierney Waite 1959-1993

On April 26, 2006, a Taylor University van with a driver and eight passengers was hit by a huge semi that came barreling across the highway median. Five people in the van were killed. The others were seriously injured.

An EMS veteran and deputy coroner later described the accident as one of the worst scenes he had witnessed in 30 years. The living and the dead were strewn together across the highway along with papers, wallets and debris. In the confusion, the identities of two similar-looking students were switched. It would be five weeks before the terrible error was detected. One of the students in question was alive but in a coma. The other was dead.

Four days after the accident, more than 1,400 people attended the closed-casket funeral for the victim they believed to be Whitney Cerak. Whitney’s parents buried her in their hometown of Gaylord, Mich. Then, they tried to pick up the pieces of their lives.

Back in Fort Wayne, Ind., the family of Laura VanRyn began a watch by the bedside of a patient they were told was their critically injured daughter. Doctors had warned that they might not recognize her because of the extent of her injuries. For an incredible five weeks, they kept a vigil around the clock.

Serious doubts did not surface until "Laura" began to slowly regain consciousness. In the course of rehabilitation, a therapist asked the patient to write her name. She wrote, "Whitney Cerak." Two days later, her true identity was confirmed with dental records. This stunning news brought explosive joy to one family, while plunging the other into unparalleled grief. In the ensuing days, the VanRyns had to unearth their daughter’s body from a stranger’s grave, then rebury her along with their hopes for a future.

How does one heal from such a tragedy? It’s like discovering that the child you’ve been raising was switched in the hospital nursery and actually belongs to someone else, and that your child is dead. Sure, we know that life is unpredictable, but we don’t expect life and death to be overturned. After all, alive is alive. Dead is dead.

Or is it?

In truth, isn’t death just another phase of life? Doesn’t it mark the transition from life on Earth to life with God in heaven? From God’s perspective, isn’t death less of a separation than it is a doorway?

I’m not suggesting that the death of a loved one is easy. It’s not. It’s excruciating. God gave us enormous capacity to love, and therefore the death of a loved one leaves a hollow in our hearts that no one else can fill.

God knows this because God, too, suffered the loss of a loved one. It must have been excruciating for God to watch his Son, even knowing that Jesus would rise again.

The only way we can survive such pain is with hope. As Christians, we have hope of the Resurrection, hope that we will be reunited with our loved ones for all eternity. It is this hope that sustains us after a loved one has died. Without it, we fall into despair.

When Whitney Cerak’s parents heard that the girls’ identities had been switched and that their daughter was alive, they refused to believe the news. They were terrified that their lives would be shattered yet again. They were afraid to hope.

Are we afraid to hope? Are we afraid that God won’t be there to catch us, won’t do what God promised, cannot be trusted? In Scripture, we are urged to "hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful" (Heb. 10:23). God is faithful. God deserves our complete trust because God is always faithful.

It’s gut-wrenching to watch a loved one suffer and die. It’s frightening to face the dying process ourselves. But we always have hope. And that hope will not disappoint us.

Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer.