Does Anyone Die Alone?

by Melannie Svoboda SND on May 18, 2020

One of the heart-breaking consequences of the current pandemic is that many people cannot be with their loved ones at the time of their death. Those left behind often suffer great anguish because their loved ones died alone. Their stories raise a bigger question: Does anyone die alone?

The obvious answer seems to be yes, for some people do die with no one else physically present with them. But, does that mean they die alone? To answer that question, I interviewed four women with years of experience ministering to the dying and their families in hospitals, nursing homes, private homes, hospice centers, and (in a few cases) even by the side of a highway. The women are Marla (with 20 years experience) and three Sisters of Notre Dame, Donna (22 years), Helen (9 years), and Gail (26 years). I found their experiences and insights extremely valuable—so much so that I will devote two blogs to the topic of death and dying. After all, how can we be living during a pandemic without reflecting on the reality of death?

When I posed the question, “Does anyone die alone?” to my four friends, Gail immediately responded with another question: “Are we ever really alone?” It’s a good question. If we as Catholics/Christians believe that God is with us throughout our entire life, then why would we think that God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit would not be with us as we are dying—whether we are alone or not?

Years ago there was a TV program called Touched by An Angel. It starred a trio of angels: Monica (Roma Downey), Tess (Della Reese) her supervisor, and Andrew (John Dye) the angel of death. Andrew was not someone to be terrified of. Instead he was a smiling, kind, and gentle young man who described his job as “bringing people home.” When people lay dying, many times alone, Andrew was with them, often taking their hand or actually holding them. All the while he assured them that “God loves you so much” or “You have nothing to be afraid of.” He helped people die, that is, he walked beside them into their new heavenly life, represented by a bright white light.

But what if there is no gentle angel of death? Is there anyone else present (besides God!) to help the dying person transition to eternal life? Helen said that when she is with someone who is actively dying, she often senses that the deceased loved ones of the dying person are also present in the room. The other three agreed. Helen said, their deceased loved ones are “encouraging the person to ‘let go’ and ‘come.'” Some dying people actually talk to a deceased spouse, parent, or other loved one—even though no one else in the room sees them.

A beautiful poem by Henry Van Dyke expresses this idea and is often used at wakes and funerals. The poem ends with these words: Just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There, she is gone!” there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

Donna said, “Sometimes the dying seem to choose to die alone.” Marla, Gail, and Helen agreed. They all told stories of family members keeping vigil with their loved one for hours or even days. Some families take shifts around the clock so their dying loved one is never alone. But when the one keeping vigil leaves the room only for a minute (perhaps to go to the bathroom) and returns, their loved one has died. When this happens, Marla consoles families by saying, “Maybe your mother (father, husband, wife, grandparent, sister, etc.) loved you so much, she (he) couldn’t let go of life in your presence. So she waited to be alone to die.”

These words are not meant to mitigate the suffering people experience when denied access to their dying loved ones. My heart goes out to them. At the same time, we must remember that despite all we know about death, death still remains an unfathomable mystery.

But if we, throughout our lives, have repeatedly placed our own life and the lives of our loved ones into God’s loving care, then we must trust that God will be embracing us and our loved ones at the moment of death. Then we will face death in the same way we have faced all the fears, trials, uncertainties, and unknowns of our life: with deep faith and complete trust in the God who loves us more than we can imagine.

Next week’s reflection on death and dying will hone in on some ways to be with the dying, plus some thoughts on our own death. I want to thank Marla, Donna, Helen, and Gail for sharing their years of experience with us. I asked them for the names of some books that they found helpful in their ministry. Here are their suggestions:

Let Someone Hold You by Paul Morrissey, hospice priest (Donna); The Grace in Dying by Kathleen Dowling Singh (Marla); Being with Dying by Joan Halifax (Gail); Grieving with Hope by Samuel Hodges and Kathy Leonard (Helen); (and my suggestion) Send My Roots Rain: A Companion on the Grief Journey by Kim Langley.

Did anything in this reflection stir your heart?

PS: Announcement: I will be giving a “Zoom retreat” sponsored by the King’s House Retreat and Renewal Center in Belleville, IL from July 13-20, 2020. This is my first Zoom retreat, so I’m excited about it. This means you can stay at home and tune in to the 2 conferences each day with the other retreatants. I will be at home too! See the retreat center’s website for details.

I am offering two videos today. The first is “How Great Thou Art,” sung here by Chris Rice. This 1885 hymn is often sung at funerals. The second is a short video about Peyo, a therapy horse who comforts the sick and dying.

“How Great Thou Art” Sung by Chris Rice:

Peyo, the therapy horse… I thank my friend, Fr. Rich of Pittsburgh, for sending me this video:

Do you have any thoughts or responses to today’s reflection or videos? If so, please respond below.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

John E Hopkins May 18, 2020 at 5:55 am

Good morning, Sister Melannie…
Good morning, all…

A timely topic, a difficult one, but an important one — Thank you.
And many thanks to Marla, Donna, Helen, and Gail for sharing their experiences and wisdom.

During the 1980s, PBS television channels — especially during pledge drives — would often air talks by Dr. Leo Buscaglia. I used to love listening to him!

There he’d be up on stage, behind a podium, his shirt darkening with sweat as his talk went on, no slick production tricks to heighten his message, just passionate Leo, urging us to love each other, to hug each other!

Oh! How times have changed!

Sadly, Leo’s “time” came in 1998, but you can still visit him on Youtube. He has also left behind a slew of books and quotes. Here’s one germain to today’s topic: “Death is a challenge. It tells us not to wast time…It tells us to tell each other right now that we love each other.”

Take care, all!

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Anne Busby May 18, 2020 at 6:12 am

Dear Sister Melannie
Your reflection today was special for me. It is the dying that often scares me, but not the passing from this life to God’s embrace. I was present when my Mum passed – she wanted me to go with her – I told her that it was a journey she had to take without me. In the room she told me that two others were present – I believe they were possibly loved ones who had come to take Mum home to God. Thank your friends for sharing their experiences. I look forward to next week’s reflection. I live in Wales UK and am interested in joining your Zoom Retreat – do you know whether this is possible for someone outside of America? Take care, Sister Melannie, and all those who get your reflection, and stay safe! Love and Prayers from Anne

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Melannie Svoboda SND May 18, 2020 at 8:28 am

Dear Anne, Thank you for sharing the death of your dear Mum with us… You asked about participating in the Zoom retreat I’m giving in July. I’ll check with the retreat center to answer your question. Thanks again! Sr. Melannie

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Kathleen Magiera May 18, 2020 at 7:11 am

What a beautiful reflection on dying Sr. Melannie! It was just what I needed to hear as the death count rises from coronavirus searches beyond 90,000 in the United State. It breaks my heart that so many in our country say it’s a “small percentage” of those infected by the virus. Every life counts.

Take care and be safe.

Kathleen

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Tina May 18, 2020 at 7:27 am

Thank you so much Sr Melannie! Your reflections are always wonderful but today’s is particularly timely for me. My good friend is dying at hospice and we are unable to visit her due to the pandemic. How comforting your words are.
Take care, God Bless you.
Tina

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Pete May 18, 2020 at 8:01 am

You can see the special relationship between the horse and the patients. My daughter-in-law used to go to nursing homes with her special animals, and now she is with God. Peyo brought tears to my eyes. Thanks!

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Mary Therese May 18, 2020 at 8:54 am

First, John E. Hopkins. I too was deeply touched by Leo Buscaglia’s talks on PBS. One phrase of his that has always stuck with me is “The time for joy is now.” I might revisit some of his talks during this difficult time. Thanks for reminding me of his talks.

I had the privilege of sitting with my mother the night of her death of breast cancer at age 92 in June of 2012. She was in her beloved house of 50 years, with her seven daughters coming and going. I watched the moon move across the sky and heard the birdsong as dawn arrived. She died after I left the room to the care of another sister so I could lie down for a few minutes. We kept her at home until early afternoon and daughters and grandchildren all came to say farewell, some climbing right into bed with her and giving her a final embrace. When the funeral home came to collect her body we lined the sidewalk from the house to the street singing Amazing Grace. As the hearse pulled down the street I couldn’t help but run after it shouting “Call me when you get home.” as she ALWAYS did when I left her home to drive 90 miles back to my home. She had always prayed to St. Joseph for a happy death, and she was rewarded, as were all of us, with such.

On the other hand, we just my husband’s brother at the end of March who died alone in a seedy motel within a month of being released from jail where he served time for parole violations related to DUI offenses. He suffered his entire life with mental illness, drug and alcohol issues and a myriad of health problems. The family expended numerous amounts of time, energy and money to help him over the last 15 years, but he was never able to achieve sobriety for any length of time. His siblings decided this time to withdraw support and let him “reach bottom,” hoping he would then turn his life around. Unfortunately, the bottom for him was death. Living with the consequences of that decision has been hard for everyone. Because he died in a city hit hard by the virus his body was removed to a morgue, and nobody was able to see him. He has been cremated, and hopefully this summer we will be able to have a small gathering of siblings to put him to rest with his parents. While I do mourn the way of his death, I have clung to the idea that his guardian angel was with him.

Thank you for presenting this important subject as we all, no doubt, have thought about our own mortality during this pandemic.

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Michelle May 18, 2020 at 10:43 am

Good morning, Sr. Melannie, Mary Therese and all. I really needed this today. Thank you! Often we think we are alone in our experiences in life, and then someone tells a story much like your own and it changes everything.

My family had been by my mama’s bedside for six weeks. My sister and I had kept nightly vigil for the entire time, praying with her, tucking her in, staying in the building next door. The day before her death we knew the end was near as she stopped responding in any way. We stayed and took shifts and decided to get a few hours of sleep to prepare for the coming days after a visit at 2 a.m. We no sooner opened the door to our room when the phone rang to tell us “your loved one has passed.” Shock!! Why didn’t we stay? Oh, I beat myself up for weeks!! Over time I healed and realized the Lord was with Mama every moment of her dying. I think I was jealous in a way and felt cheated, if that makes any sense at all! What a comfort to know she was with the Lord and my Dad!

On the other side is a BIL who died quite tragically after a bout with cancer. He was a homeless man, alcoholic, who had finally found comfort with family. He continued drinking and suffered greatly in the end of his life from lung cancer. He died alone in a hospital after gastrointestinal hemorrhaging. It was so sad to think no one was there to at least hold his hand. The comfort I take in this is that I had prayed for him the entire time I knew him and have always prayed for him after his death.

I apologize for my long missive, but in the same breath thank you all for this very healing discussion. Peyo the horse is a gift from God to those he and his owner minister to daily! Thank you, Sr. Melannie for always bringing wonderful topics and timely discussions. Blessings to all.

MICHELLE

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Melannie Svoboda SND May 18, 2020 at 11:11 am

Dear Mary Therese, Your two stories brought tears to my eyes… Thank you for sharing them with all of us. How poignant, you running after the hearse saying, “Call me when you get home!” My mother used to say that to me all the time too… And later, when I’d visit her in the nursing facility each day, she’d always ask, “What’s new?” At times it was hard to come up with anything new, since I had just seen her the day before. But shortly after she died, when I was still alone with her, I kissed her on her still-warm forehead and whispered, “Mom, what’s new?” As I tried to imagine all she was experiencing… I pray the gathering for your brother-in-law will be a time rich in blessings for each person present…. Thanks again! Melannie

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Melannie Svoboda SND May 18, 2020 at 11:16 am

Dear Michelle, Thank you for sharing your stories with us. Yes, sometimes we lay a lot of guilt on ourselves needlessly after we have lost a loved one. I finally tell myself, “Rather than regretting what I did or did not do, let me give thanks for the gift this person was for me–and the gift I was to her (him). And give thanks for the blessings I received through this person… And yes, praying for someone who is dying IS a way of BEING with them… Thanks again! Melannie

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George Marsh May 18, 2020 at 9:26 am

Very much appreciated all the comments.
I also recommend a short book (given four and a half stars by Good Reads), Crossing the Creek: A Practical Guide to Understanding the Dying Process, by Michael Holmes, a Hospice Registered Nurse. An inspiring insight he gives is what souls are likely to do after entering eternal life.

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Jean May 18, 2020 at 9:55 am

Good Sunny Monday Morn to you Sister Melannie,
Thank you for today’s readings and videos-as always-perfect!!

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Chris Keil May 18, 2020 at 10:14 am

Thank you for this. Thank you for the poem by Henry Van Dyke, how beautiful and re-assuring, of course it would be like this! This week it will be 5 years since I lost my dad. I was blessed to be able to care for him in my home in those last days, and my experience definitely coincides with your experts. Dad had “visitors”, in his case, his brother. And, when it was his time, sure enough, he waited until we left the room for the smallest moment.
God Bless You and good luck on your ZOOM retreat. I’m getting more used to virtual things………..not so bad as an alternative, but I still like in person best!

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Josita May 18, 2020 at 10:50 am

Dear Melannie,
I can’t tell you how grateful I am for today’s reflection . I resonated so deeply with everything you said…it would take pages to share. I just lost my sister, Mary who I was very close to, on April 22nd. She resided at a nursing facility, and even at the young age of 95, she was still very alert and totally oriented. Unfortunately she succumbed to Covid 19, and with the home being on lock- down we could not visit or see her. All I could do was put her and myself in the arms of Jesus so I knew she was not alone and safe.
I thank you for your comforting words, and ask for prayers for my family and me, as it is hard not to have closure at this time.
On a happier note…I am so glad to hear of your zoom retreat …I hope to attend! God bless you for your inspiring blogs. Love, Josita

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Melannie Svoboda SND May 18, 2020 at 4:45 pm

Dear Josita, My deepest sympathy to you on the death of your sister, Mary. How difficult it must have been to be denied access to her as she completed her earthly journey… I’m sure my readers will hold you and your family in prayer I know I will. Melannie

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Edwin May 19, 2020 at 4:12 am

I am very sorry for your loss. God Bless her for being with this world for what sounds like 95 blessed years.

Kind regards.

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Sr M Francel Orosz May 18, 2020 at 10:57 am

Sr. Melanie I have to share the beautiful experience of my aunt’s death. As I was standing by her side she smiled at someone who was “standing” by my side. She called her Anna – my mother and her deceased Sister. When I asked her if Anna was really there she said “yes” Then she looked around her bed and named each sibling and her parents. At the end she looked up and said “oh” with a huge smile and I’m sure Jesus came to take her.

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Carole Iseli May 18, 2020 at 11:19 am

Thank you, Sr. Melannie, for this beautiful reflection. Mid-May is always a difficult time for me because on May 16, in successive years, I lost my maternal grandmother (1976), my Dad (1983), and my best friend (2006). But because of my belief that we’re all “just passing through,” I rejoice in the knowledge that they are where our good God meant them to be from the beginning, and I so look forward to seeing them again in the life to come. Let’s keep alive the hope that Easter brings!

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Melannie Svoboda SND May 18, 2020 at 4:47 pm

Dear Carole, Your story really touched me… your painful losses–and all on May 16th… Yes, anniversaries of deaths can be difficult at times… and yes, we must “keep alive the hope Easter brings.” Thank you for responding, Carole. Melannie

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Shirley May 18, 2020 at 11:41 am

Thank you Sister Melannie! What a beautiful reflection on dying. The song is definitely one of my favorites! The horse video is amazing! Thanks for sharing and and a blessed week.

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Maggie May 18, 2020 at 12:14 pm

Thank you Sister and all who have contributed to such a timely topic today. The video with the horse reminds me of my beloved Aunt’s request when she was dying of cancer. Her request to me was to bring her beloved cat to the hospital. Monia, the cat, was wild and not trained to be carried in a cage- the veterinarian would come to the house to give her shots.
I could not see myself putting her in the cage and taking a taxi to take her to the hospital. So I refused. But , twelve years later, I still feel guilty for not fulfilling her last wish.
Maggie

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Melannie Svoboda SND May 18, 2020 at 4:50 pm

Dear Maggie, I hope, in time, you can “let go” of the guilt you feel. Be assured that all your beloved Aunt’s wishes are being fulfilled now by a God who cannot be outdone in love and generosity… I’m sure she would want peace for you. Melannie

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Kathleen May 18, 2020 at 3:20 pm

Thank you for your lovely and timely reflection. I just buried my best friend today. Your words were a comfort to me.

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Melannie Svoboda SND May 18, 2020 at 4:41 pm

Dear Kathleen, My deepest sympathy to you on the loss of your best friend… Melannie

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Patty Davidson May 18, 2020 at 7:44 pm

Thank you Melannie!
This along with your book, Gracious Goodness, gets me through.
( and my parish Mass celebrated in a small chapel where the Jesuits live – so much better than the empty church!)!
If I’m hospitalized, I sure hope some one will bring in a horse to visit me!
Patty
pattykdavidson@gmail.com

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Jan G May 19, 2020 at 12:30 am

Dear Sister Melannie & all,

I am a retired RN & I want to assure all of you that nurses are pretty “in tune” to when one of our patients time is close. If, for any reason, a loved one can’t be there they don’t die alone. It is rare that one of us can’t be there with them, doing all we can to keep them comfortable & holding their hand while they slip away for their journey to heaven. I have considered it an honor to be able to do this. From sitting with AIDS patients to any other
patient, those patients did not die alone.

I have seen a few stories on tv recently where nurses in the ER or ICU held the hand of their COVID-19 patients who were dying so that they didn’t die alone.

That being said, I want that horse to visit me when my end is near!

God bless you Sister for your weekly blog. I always look forward to it!

With love & prayers for all,
Jan

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Edwin May 19, 2020 at 4:19 am

Thank you for this lovely post. I recently moved from a 5 hour drive to my mother, to a 5 hour flight. When I made this move I expected to see her regularly, but now the reality really hurts. Fortunately, she has been staying healthy, but I am terrified by the thought of something happening to her and being unable to see her in person. I expressed this to her many times, and her replies mirror your post. I must just be faithful, pray for her and everyone else, and no matter what, everything will be okay.

Kind regards.

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Lynn Sargent Berner May 19, 2020 at 6:57 am

Thank you, Sister Melanie. We need to become comfortable talking about dying. Many of us feel sad at not being able to visit a parent in a nursing home when death could happen anytime (particularly if the parent has not had a strong spiritual life.) But like your friends, I have observed someone converse with God as she was dying, so I know it is true.

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Sr. Jane Boos May 20, 2020 at 10:28 am

Good morning, I read and watched this video as part of my morning prayer and was deeply moved. First because I have an incredible love for horses and experienced peace as I watched the video. The strange thing is that no other animal has this effect on me. Second, I am a chaplain and have been with persons, alone, when they let go into the hands of God. The Spirit nudges me with words or silence and the person with those who are dying is our loving, merciful God – mother and father – I simply stand in their presence. Thank you for sharing. Jane, ssnd

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Carol May 21, 2020 at 6:14 am

It took me until a Thursday May 21 to bring myself to read this blog & all the responses since I have had such intimate & unique dying experiences with my father, mother, sister & best friend’s husband. I knew, even though it’s been many years, what a “gift in disguise” it is to be with someone who is dying,

My personal account is worth sharing as it serves to reassure me that we are always in the presence of our Creator, But especially at the end of life.

I had been blessed & fortunate to be my only sibling’s caregiver in my home until her death in 2012. I was growing weary of watching & praying for the inevitable to bring sweet relief to her & me. At one point, her sons made a feeble attempt to hasten her death with the morphine that was meant to keep her comfortable, however, in her case it was futile. Suffering from Multiple Myeloma is rarely alleviated by any attempts by Hospice to ease the pain.

As her sons, were trying so hard to find a way to cope with the impending death of their mother whom they loved so much, I happened to see them in the desperate act to end her suffering. I instinctively reacted which interrupted their decision to end her life. Sadly, that put the Hospice nurse in the awkward yet painful decision to notify the authorities while my poor sister was taken to the hospital to counter the morphine overdose.

The sons were taken into custody with the grim reality that they could be charged should she pass away as a result of their actions. Meanwhile, I was in the hospital so distraught from the fact that my dear sister’s final days were now made worse with medical interventions to prevent her from dying at that moment. In a matter of hours, she was back in my home to resume the dying process. I was so upset….angry, sad, frustrated that God was making her dying experience so traumatic for her & her loved ones.

As a result, her 2 sons were forbidden to be with her unless supervised for fear of endangering her life. Well, they were so shocked by their own futile actions & riddled with shame & guilt that they left my home, where they had been staying for the past 10 days to come to terms with what they had done. How was this going to end for us who would be left behind once God was ready for her?

It was another week before she passed but during that time, this unresponsive woman of 63, had miraculously had a rare, lucid moment where she asked for something to drink…..my husband & I were shocked to even hear her speak, let alone make such a request since she had not been taking in anything substantial for almost 2 weeks. What could we possibly give her? Then we remembered 2 things she loved….ginger ale & ice cream. So I soaked a little sponge on a stick with ginger ale for her to taste & put a spoonful of vanilla ice cream in to her mouth….”That was so refreshing!” she responded. Then it was back to being unresponsive. The next night, as I was keeping vigil, I drifted off to sleep in between administering water & pain meds, to be awakened by a change in her breathing. I jumped up to find she was on her way to meet her Savior.

What an experience, privilege, & test of faith this journey had been for me & my husband. To this day, I miss her terribly & resented her difficult passage from this life to Heaven, but I know God was always at her side choosing the right moment for her.

One last “miracle”…..days before all this, the Hospice minister stopped over unexpectedly to offer consolation. With a hymnal in tow, he suggested we sing & pray together. I was in no mood for singing but told him if he wanted to do so to go ahead. “What shall I sing?” he asked. I told him my sister loved an old, unusual hymn called In to the Garden…..he looked shocked as he showed me his song book with a piece of paper marking a spot he had chosen before he even left his house….it was that particular hymn! God was letting me know He was in our presence & would be with me & my sister for the duration. I was dumbfounded & brought to tears that the hand of God made Himself known to the three of us.

I know this was a long response but I thank you for affording me a venue to share this momentous time in my life.

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Melannie Svoboda SND May 21, 2020 at 7:53 am

Dear Carol,
I was very moved by your story. What a difficult time this must have been for you. At the same time, you found obvious blessings amid all the pain. Thank you for sharing your conviction that our Creator was present through it all. What a grace that is for you. And now it is a grace for all of us too. I admire your devotion to your sister and your faith. Thank you again… Sr. Melannie

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Kathleen Dunn ihm May 22, 2020 at 2:21 pm

I’m trying to find more information about a July retreat via zoom. I’ve searched the retreat house that I believe was posted on your site. I would like to make this zoom retreat and was searching for the cost- could not find info on the retreat house web site

Thank you, Sister Kathleen

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Melannie Svoboda SND May 22, 2020 at 5:13 pm

Dear Kathleen,
The decision to turn this retreat into a Zoom retreat was made just recently. It will take a few more days for the staff to post that information on King’s House Retreat Center in Belleville, IL. This is their first Zoom retreat. Check again in a week or so. Thank you for your interest! Sr. Melannie

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Jean Canatsey May 24, 2020 at 8:25 pm

Dear Sr. Melannie,
What a timely topic. A dear high school friend, who was my maid of honor 64 years ago, recently lost her husband to Covid-19. I think sometimes we forget that a good marriage is made up of two halves. He may not have been “alone” but they were separated and she was acutely aware of the separation. I’m sure she felt very alone in the dying process. She didn’t even have the closure and consolation of a real funeral and burial surrounded by family and friends.
Please pray for the consolation of my friend, Stasia, and for all those who feel “alone” in this new way of saying goodbye to our loved ones.

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