“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 my 55-year-old, same-sex-attracted brother Mark said to me in the last two weeks of his life. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer in May, treated in August, and hospitalized twice in January. When my wife and I saw him on February 10th, he was exploring hospice. This began a whirlwind of two and a half weeks reconnecting with him. He died on the 27th.
Mark remembered many more ugly and painful memories from childhood than I did. He felt profoundly unloved. He was bullied at home and in school. He was assaulted as an adult for his sexual orientation. Mark struggled with deep depression and would want to die. He disconnected from our family for decades. He had a “Homeless Heart.”
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 too.
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! 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 approval.
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.
On the Friday before Mark died the hospice doctor thought he could go that afternoon or within forty-eight 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, as we waited 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 taking 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.
We dressed him for cremation in a flannel shirt, cargo pants, and an old pair of work boots. He had been a rehabber, after all. I think because Mark had seen so much ugliness in his life, he had a strong sense of and attraction to beauty. He could make the ugliest houses beautiful.
God is a rehabber too. Now that Mark 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.
After he died, I hit play on his iPod 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 “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”
Dave McClow is a Clinical Pastoral Counseling Associate with the Pastoral Solutions Institute. He founded two text ministries for men: Abba Challenge, “Faith on The Phone,” and “Fasting on the Phone” for Rekindle the Fire’s men’s group. He and his wife entered the Catholic Church in 1996. “He Had a Way of Remembering That Kept His Wounds Open. ” is adapted from his “He Ain’t Heavy: Reflecting on the Death of My Brother,” published on Catholic Exchange.