By Father Joseph Breighner
This is the second time I’ve attempted to write this column. My computer just shut down for no apparent reason, and I lost what I had written. I guess even my computer is grieving for Helen.
Yes, my sister, Helen Eder, died May 14, the eve of my 45th anniversary as a priest. No doubt Helen, thoughtful even in death, did not want to spoil that date for me.
I had visited Helen that day. Her husband, Mike, had stayed with her all day. He left to go to bed about 11 p.m. Helen died at 11:27 p.m.
Very often a dying person’s last gift is to die when no one is there. When my mother died in 1983, Helen and I had just stepped out of her room to talk to the doctor. In those few moments she passed away. Perhaps it is too hard for them to leave when a loved one is present. Perhaps they want to make it easier for those left behind.
Dying is hard work. We have to do the physical, emotional and spiritual work of letting go. I had never thought of death that way. Mostly I had viewed death as something that was done to us. We were “being killed” by something, such as cancer, pneumonia or whatever. But now I recognize that there is a choice to let go.
The best example is Jesus. Obviously the flogging and crucifixion killed him, but he still had to choose to let go: “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” People often lived for days on crosses. Jesus apparently let go in three hours.
And this is not some form of suicide. Rather it is a form of surrender, a surrender to what some might call a Higher Power. We would call it surrendering to God.
We all come here with some job to do. Helen was a wonderful wife, mother, grandmother and administrator. In her career she was retirement coordinator for Baltimore County Public Schools. At her funeral, Robert Dubel, the former superintendent of that school system, referred to Helen as his “chief of staff.” He added that he could never get to work before Helen, and that she would always decorate his office for Christmas and other holidays.
A few years ago I was in an antique store in Shrewsbury, Pa., talking to the owner. I asked him if this is what he had always done, and he replied that he had been a teacher in Baltimore County. I asked simply: “Did you by any chance know Helen Eder?” If I had announced the second coming of Christ he could not have been more elated. “Helen Eder! Helen Eder! Everybody knows Helen Eder!”
Helen went to the parish school at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Essex, and later graduated from St. Michael’s Business School. She went to work at age 15, and never stopped working. In her 50s Helen graduated from the Weekend College at what is now Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore. She loved the school, the School Sisters of Notre Dame and the adventure. In retirement, she became registrar for the Weekend College.
To me, Helen was always my Big Sister. I was the youngest of four, and Helen was the oldest. I’ve never known a world without her.
Much is written about the loss of spouses and parents and children. Not enough has been written about the loss of siblings. Yet, these are the people we shared those earliest years with, and all the rest of our years. I find it hard to imagine a world without Helen.
So, again, I ask for your prayers. Helen did what she came to do. She brought energy and life and love to our family and to our world. No doubt she heard those words: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” May we all do good with our lives.
Read more commentary from Father Breighner here.