Shelagh Fogarty in THE TABLET, 9 December 2021

The words I said to myself like a steadying mantra as I left my mother’s house two hours after she had died. I wouldn’t see her again but she is forever with me because she is, was and will always be the very definition of gift

I first came across the term in a podcast sermon by Bishop Robert Barron in which he talks about the theology of grace. He puts it so simply. God, creation, your life, every life and everything in it, is gift. Nothing you have done generates this gift. It is freely given by a loving God. Once you understand that, the only thing to do is to make a gift of yourself. Pour yourself out. Empty yourself instead of guarding yourself, instead of holding on to what you have.

When we hear this, I suspect most of us leap straight to thoughts of the material things we can give, share, or let go of – and of course we should – but it’s more than that. I only really understood “the loop of grace” in the years I was with my mother and caring for her before she died three months ago. The vulnerability that crept up on her in ever-accelerating stages rarely felt like a gift to her, I’m sure. She struggled with it, sometimes despaired of it, and felt sorrow because of it. As did her children. But during these years I often experienced that loop of grace that Bishop Barron speaks about. The more you empty yourself in giving, the fuller you seem to become. That has certainly been my experience of the last few years with Mum.

How so? A deepening of our relationship, a new friendship, a clearer perception of the extraordinary woman she was in the ordinary ways of life; all that – and also deep changes in myself that I am still metabolising. My brother Liam, in his eulogy at Mum’s funeral, said her biggest frustration was that she couldn’t give to us and her grandchildren in the way she would have loved to. Little did she or we know how laden with gifts that time when we were caring for her would be – even through the many tears. Perhaps especially through the tears.

Caring. The question is never far from the news headlines these days. Who cares for whom? How? Where? Who pays? Who sacrifices their job? Their time? Their health? Their sanity? The latest proposal for funding social care came with the usual language of “burden”. It always does. The vulnerable person doesn’t want to be a burden. Families fear the responsibility of caring for someone who is old or sick. Friends talk about what you might lose in your own life through caring. Politicians debate the financial burden of care. Paid carers bear the burden of low pay and low status.

None of the above is in the same postcode as the loop of grace.

What would an approach to care look and sound like if an openness to grace was in the mix? If we treated one another as gift, not burden? The tone of the conversation would change, in families, in communities and in parliament. We would wake up to the horror of the many thousands of elderly people who live in precarious circumstances with only fleeting human company, and then only for practical, functional reasons. We would start from a human solution and work backwards – instead of starting from a burdensome problem and staggering unwillingly forwards.

And this isn’t just a matter of health and social care policy either. Housing, public transport, the way we design neighbourhoods need to change so that vulnerable people aren’t isolated.

This isn’t just a matter of money. It’s also about love. In the words of Pope Francis: “We are challenged to become builders and prophets of community.” The Pope speaks often and beautifully of the gift that our elders are. They are our roots. If we don’t care for them, we will all be diminished.

The grace and courage my mother showed us even as she took her last breaths were gift. She was still giving and still teaching us. Still leading where we will one day follow.

Everything is gift.

he words I said to myself like a steadying mantra as I left my mother’s house two hours after she had died. I wouldn’t see her again but she is forever with me because she is, was and will always be the very definition of gift.

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