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Death and the Afterlife? A Secular Family’s View


Cari Donaldson - published on 11/03/14

Praying for loved ones that could not find their way to faith

My grandfather died when I was not quite six. He was a beloved figure in my childhood, that mythological combination of love and fun and acceptance. The day he passed on, my father was the one who had to explain things to my brother and me. There in my parents’ bedroom, the curtains drawn, the bed unmade, my brother and I sat there, legs swinging against the box springs, watching my dad fumble his way through the conversation.

“Grandpa Bob has…well. God wanted Grandpa with him in heaven. So he … died.” My dad had no words for this task.  My four-year-old brother and I had no context for it.  

“What’s ‘died’?”  I asked. My dad looked at the ceiling.

“It’s like … it’s like going to sleep and never waking up.” We weren’t a particularly religious family. There are no classes for talking to children about death in a mostly secular context. And if there are now, there weren’t in the 80s.

“So, if I go to sleep, I won’t wake up?” my brother was more horrified by this than I was. I remember hearing a car pull up in front of the house, and being delighted to discover that my beloved cousin had come visit for the occasion of grandpa’s death.

Thus began the strange procession into heaven of my youth. From that point, every person I knew went directly into eternal rewards upon the end of their earthly life. It didn’t matter how absent God was from the individual’s public life, when their heart stopped, in the Protestant upbringing of my childhood, the deceased went immediately to Heaven.

Somehow this notion wasn’t comforting to me. Instead, it struck me as a mockery somehow. Though of what, I couldn’t precisely pin down.

Decades later, when I converted to Catholicism, the understanding of Purgatory comforted me greatly. The concept of final sanctification, and the fact that the living could help holy souls through that process just made sense. Finally, God’s perfect Justice and His perfect Mercy met in a way that didn’t diminish either. All Souls Day became one of my favorite days on the liturgical calendar. The entire month of November, dedicated to our brothers and sisters in Purgatory is like a warm-up for Advent for me.

There is a spectacularly helpful book published by TAN, called Stories About Purgatory and What They Reveal. For every day in the month of November, it gives a different group of souls to pray for: from those undergoing their purgation the longest, to those who were particularly devoted to the Blessed Sacrament, to those souls which died suddenly and without proper preparation, this book reminds you of the spectrum of souls needing our prayers.

I am the first Catholic in my family probably since the Reformation, so I love the month of November not only to pray for all the holy souls, generations of my people, and particularly my Grandpa Bob. Take a moment each day to remember your dead, too.  

Cari Donaldson
is the author of 
“Pope Awesome and Other Stories: How I Found God, Had Kids, and Lived to Tell the Tale”.
She married her high school sweetheart, had six children with him, and now spends her days homeschooling, writing, and figuring out how to stay one step ahead of her child army. She blogs about faith and family life at

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