“I don’t believe in hell. If there is a hell, it can’t be any worse than my life here.” These were the most striking words from my 55-year-old, same-sex-attracted brother Mark in the last two-plus weeks of his life. He died Feb. 27 from throat cancer. I wanted to remember him here and witness to the abyss of God’s mercy.
It started in May 2016 with a diagnosis, then treatment in August, and two hospitalizations in January 2017 that included a heart attack and a lack of response to treatment. When my wife and I saw him on Feb. 10, 2017, he was exploring hospice. This began the whirlwind of two and a half weeks of reconnecting and parting with my brother.
Hell: a homeless heart
Mark remembered many more ugly and painful memories from childhood than I did; that shook the foundations of my world. He felt profoundly unloved, and was bullied at home and in school. He was assaulted as an adult for his sexual orientation. He struggled with bouts of deep depression and would want to die. He disconnected from our family for decades; he had a “Homeless Heart” (from a song on his iPod).
He had a way of remembering things that kept his wounds open. In his hell, he did not know that Jesus experienced deep, excruciating pain when he said, “I am grieved unto death,” or “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” I share some of Mark’s pain here, because he disliked when people minimized it with clichés, and because I think it made his life more remarkable.
Responding to hell
Early in our conversations, when he talked about hell, I responded, “I believe there is a hell, but I don’t think you’re going there. God doesn’t send anyone to hell! (CCC 1033) God is love, and He can’t do anything but love you. Because of your free will, He will honor your rejection. He understands if you are angry at Him, that you have been hurt. But God does not send people to hell — they must request it.” I continued, “When you die, you will step into love — the love you have never known and always longed for.” He nodded in thoughtful approval, a light in the darkness.
From ugly to beautiful
Ironically, I think because Mark had seen so much ugliness in his life, he had a strong sense of and attraction to beauty. A rehabber at heart, he could make the ugliest houses beautiful. God is a “rehabber” too, bringing good out of evil. So, Mark had unknowingly lived out a deep Catholic spirituality, making the world more beautiful.
Making death beautiful
Death is ugly. But it was also awe-inspiring to stand at the boundary between life and death with Mark. We talked about his life, about the end, about his regrets. I was able to put my hand on his heart, to hold his hand and cradle his head. And even when he could not talk, I challenged him to forgive himself and others. I read him a note of apology from my mom. He would respond with groans and would calm down when I told him to be at peace.
The hour of mercy
On the Friday before Mark died, the hospice doctor thought he could go that afternoon or within 48 hours. So, I asked St. Faustina to intercede and let Mark die during the Hour of Mercy, as a sign to me. Friday turned into Monday, with us waiting at the foot of the cross. I left for a lunch break at 2 p.m. Just before 3 p.m., the nurse called me back, saying Mark was on his last breaths. When I arrived, he had just breathed his last; exactly at 3 p.m. he had stepped into love. I sobbed at his side. He was gone, and I couldn’t believe the time. I urged him to go toward God’s love. It had been an absolute whirlwind, an agony in the garden, with deep joy, too.
But God was not finished. Songs have come into my life at particular times to capture the moment and bring a message of love. After perusing Mark’s iPod that day, I hit play and heard Queen Latifah’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!” I felt God was showering His mercy on Mark from above, and Queen Latifah from below. I had surrounded him in mercy because — I can’t resist — “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.”
Not really the end
We dressed him for cremation in a flannel shirt, cargo pants, and an old pair of work boots. After all, he was a rehabber. Now that he has stepped into love, I believe he has a new job from his place in purgatory and heaven, this time rehabbing hearts, making the ugly beautiful. I sense his presence and blessing and often call on him to help with a hurting client. Please join me in letting his new-found love “spill over” into our lives (Benedict XVI) to heal broken hearts. Please pray for him and to him.
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