The following story appeared in the May 10 Idaho Catholic Register.
In this photo before his 2022 death, Chuck Yochum, middle is pictured with his wife, Carolyn. Their children, from left, are Joseph, George “Cliff,” John, Jeanine (Humphrey), Janelle (Tostenrude) and Justin. (Courtesy photo/Carolyn Yochum)
By Emily Woodham
Death pervades life, but human beings are experts at distracting themselves from its inevitability.
“A problem with our culture is that we have removed death from real life. We have sanitized death. Not as many people go to funerals, or even have funerals, as we did in the past,” said Father Mariusz Majewski, rector of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Boise. (Father Mariusz’ father, Stanislaw, passed away shortly after he was interviewed for this story. Father Mariusz celebrated his funeral Mass and has been in Poland for the last month helping his family with final arrangements.)
In his 15 years as a priest, and especially during his year in a clinical pastoral education program, Father Majewski (who is called Father Mariusz), has accompanied many people with terminal illness. When people are faced with the reality of their own death, all distractions end, he said.
“When people are dying, no one is talking about anything trivial. It is beautiful to walk with people when they are dying. It’s a privilege to be with them in those moments when they face questions, doubts or temptations,” he said.
Chuck Yochum was one of the many people who faced imminent death and went to Father Mariusz in search of answers and comfort.
In July of 2021, Chuck, a parishioner of the Cathedral, was given the news that he had terminal cancer and had only months to live. After looking at different options, Chuck made his peace with God, Father Mariusz said, and decided to spend his final months at home with hospice care. He died on Jan. 14, 2022.
Facing his death with such faith was not happenstance, but came from a lifetime of devotion.
Born in 1941, Chuck was a devout Catholic his entire life. “We always went to Sunday Mass,” said Chuck’s widow, Carolyn. “We were cradle Catholics. Neither of us ever fell away from the Church. It just got ingrained in our DNA as children, and it has been a gift that we’ve had our whole life. So we walked the walk together in our faith from the very beginning of our relationship, which was wonderful.”
They met while attending Catholic colleges: he at the all-men’s St. Ambrose College in Davenport, Iowa, and she at the all-women’s Marycrest College, also in Davenport. They married on May 29, 1965 and had six children. They moved to the Treasure Valley in 1984 and became parishioners at the Cathedral.
Counsel from pastor, care from family were blessings in final days
In November of 2021, Chuck asked Father Mariusz if they could meet to talk about his coming death. “We started to meet regularly and talked about mortality, saying goodbye and getting ready to die. It was great because he wanted to talk about some deep, spiritual things,” Father Mariusz said.
Carolyn said it was a blessing and a gift from God to have Father Mariusz’s pastoral care. “Father Mariusz was so accessible. When Chuck was talking to him, he was focused on Chuck, his needs and how he was doing with his journey,” she said.
Father Mariusz met with Chuck about seven times before Chuck became bedridden, she said. “I really couldn’t provide the spiritual guidance that Chuck was looking for. So I was just so relieved that he could ask questions and get direction from Father Mariusz,” she said.
When Chuck wanted to know what eternal life was going to be like, Father Mariusz was honest. “I don’t know. I’m in the same boat as you,” he told Chuck.
Chuck worried that his questions were from doubt, but it is not doubt to have questions, Father Mariusz said. “It is good to have questions and to talk about these things.”
In general, when people are dying, people mostly want to talk about their faith, whether they believe in eternal life or in God, and their relationships, especially with their spouse, children and extended family members, Father Mariusz said. Chuck had been a dedicated Catholic husband and father. Although he had a successful career in different business ventures, he always made time for his family. He and Carolyn had a strong, happy marriage. With such a well-lived life, most of Chuck’s questions were focused on the afterlife, Father Mariusz said.
However, for many, death makes people face problems in their relationships with God and with family. “When there is any severe conflict or unforgiveness, that always comes up to the surface,” Father Mariusz said. “They want to make peace with people in their life and have some kind of resolution. Their career is not that important anymore.”
Even if facing death with many regrets, Father Mariusz said that receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick gives Catholics the opportunity to be set free from their past and bitterness. Some people carry the baggage of unforgive-ness for years, he said, but in Confession they can let go and offer God their burdens. “The sacraments are powerful. They allow people to enter the heart of Jesus, and the peace of God’s forgiveness comes in,” he said.
Having this time to make peace with God and with people is a part of the beauty of a death that is not sudden, Father Mariusz said.
“When I was a kid, every evening we prayed, ‘From sudden, unexpected deaths, save us, O God.’ It’s an old, very profoundly theological prayer. As Catholics, we want to experience a blessed death, which is a death for which you can prepare, so you can take care of the things that are needed to be done before dying,” he said.
“I’m surprised when Catholics tell me, ‘Hey Father, I just want to die suddenly, I don’t even want to know when it happens.’ That’s a very strange thing to say as a Catholic, because wouldn’t you want to have the opportunity to prepare for that?”
The meaning of a ‘blessed death’
For Catholics, he said, a blessed death means living a long life, being surrounded by family and friends, and receiving the Sacraments and Viaticum, the final taste of the Eucharist for the journey to Heaven after death.
“A blessed death is not an accident,” he said. “You are preparing for death with your entire life. So any decision you make today is preparation.”
This lifelong preparation can be seen clearly in Chuck’s death. The love and care that Chuck and Carolyn shared in their 56 years of marriage only grew through the final months of Chuck’s life. “He had a number of physical health problems through the years, especially in the later years,” Carolyn said. “I tried to get myself as ready as I could after knowing that I was going to be alone in a matter of months. But there’s really nothing that could prepare you for that.”
At the end of Chuck’s life, Carolyn cared for him around the clock. She made sure to take time to eat and rest, but she was ready to help him with whatever he needed at any time, she said. “Jesus says what you do to the least of my brothers, you do to Me. So every time I would take care of him or do anything for him, I’d think, this is a gift to me, because when I’m taking care of Chuck, I’m taking care of Jesus,” she said. “God gave me strength to do what I needed to do. It was truly a grace. He gave me everything I needed to walk that walk.”
Their children and grandchildren visited frequently. Even in his last six days, when Chuck was in a coma, family faithfully visited. “They say that you can still hear sometimes even though you’re not physically conscious of talking with people. So the children would come and talk with him and visit with him.”
Father Mariusz and other clergy from the Cathedral visited Chuck and Carolyn frequently. As the cancer spread, he grew more and more weak. “When he couldn’t eat or drink, we knew his death was coming soon,” she said.
On January 14, family had gathered throughout the day, not knowing for sure when he would die. Carolyn said she is sure that Chuck could hear the joyful sound of their grandchildren playing in the living room as their children spent time at his bedside. Two of their children played a violin and piano duet of Ave Maria for him; the music drifting throughout the house bringing comfort.
In the evening, all the children went home, except for a daughter who had flown in from out of state that day. As their daughter sat by his side, Carolyn read Psalm 23 aloud. “Then I told him, ‘Honey, Janelle’s here. It’s okay if you go.’ And he did, he breathed his last,” she said.
Include children in the grieving process
The inclusion of family in Chuck’s final days and grieving together, including with the young children are healthy practices for family members, Father Mariusz said. Too many families are not including children in their grief, or are not allowing themselves to grieve, he said. “It’s a tragic mistake not to grieve and not facing head on the big questions of life. By putting on a mask and denying grief, we are impoverishing our humanity,” he said.
“Bring kids to wakes, to funerals. Allow them to be part of the grieving, and don’t be afraid of that grieving, because that’s a part of life,” he said. It’s a tragic mistake when we try to shelter them, because sooner or later they will face suffering, rejection, and pain in their life. The job of the parents is to prepare them for that, and it is to walk with them.”
The dedication to each other and to their children in his final days was something Chuck and Carolyn resolved to have from the very beginning of their marriage, Carolyn said. “We walked the same walk and that made all the difference in the world. Not that we didn’t have our disagreements, like everybody does. But we had the tools to navigate any trouble because of our faith.”
A key to their marriage, she said, was that they took the Sacrament of Marriage seriously, never considering divorce an option when things were rough. “We knew that no matter what stormy weather we had to navigate, we would hang in there and ride out the stormy seas until they were over. Even if you don’t agree or you’re not happy with each other, you still have that love for each other. You have to look beyond the surface of the rough water, letting go of the things that are trivial, and you have to look beyond to the depth of your love, the depth of your union,” she said. Their deep love carried them both through to Chuck’s death.
Although Carolyn felt relief that Chuck was no longer suffering after his death, she said she mostly felt numb. “You’re so busy with the arrangements for the funeral and with family that you kind of are lifted up. So it’s not really until after everybody leaves and you come home to your empty house, that it really hits you that you’re alone,” she said.
“He loved his family more than anything. His whole life he was dedicated to his family,” she said. “He just wanted to provide for the family and take care of us.” As a self-made business man, he made sure his family was well provided for, including college tuition for all his children, she said. He also made sure that Carolyn, who had been a stay-at-home mom, was provided for after his death. “He taught me about how to take care of all our finances,” she said.
Planning for family financial well-being
The advance preparation in practical matters that Chuck took care of before his passing, such as ensuring that Carolyn was prepared to manage their finances, are examples of prepartion that people often neglect until it’s too late, Father Mariusz said. “It can make it very difficult for a widow (or widower) if they are not prepared to handle the finances,” he said. It’s an act of love to make sure physical needs and practical matters are prepared.
“A Christian should be conscious of this all the time – that life is fragile, so we should not kick the can down the road. If we need to do something important, we have to do it now. Don’t wait until the last minute,” he said.
The Idaho Catholic Foundation website has a number of documents and materials to aid families who are experiencing the loss of a loved one. By clicking on “3 Must-Have Resources,” families can be mailed material, including a personal estate planning kit, a guide to writing a will and instruction on what to do within the first 48 hours of a loved one’s passing. The website is idahocatholicfoundation.planmylegacy.org.
The Diocese of Boise also conducts free Life Planning seminars throughout the Diocese. The next one is planned for Tuesday, April 18, in Marist Hall at St. Paul’s Parish in Nampa.
Father Justin Brady will speak about liturgy planning as well as the Church’s teachings on cremation, life support and end-of-life issues. A funeral home and estate planning attorney will be available to answer questions about Durable Powers of Attorney, preparing a will, distributing your estate, health care directives, guardianship issues and leaving a Catholic legacy.
Where is heaven? Heaven is with God.
Since Chuck’s death, Carolyn leans on God and keeps busy. She travels for family reunions and to visit children and grandchildren. She also teaches piano to two of her granddaughters. “I am surrounded by lots of love, and the Lord has blessed me with good health,” she said.
She enjoys daily Mass and listening to Salt & Light Radio for encouragement. “Some of the talk shows they have will talk about grief and about suffering, about turning our life over to the Lord. That’s been helpful,” she said.
Although she’s not sure what is next for her on her journey, she knows there are lots of options. “I’m hoping that the good Lord will give me some direction in how I can serve Him in a real meaningful way.”
In preparing for Chuck’s funeral, Father Mariusz said he prayed and asked the Lord what he should take away from his time with Chuck.
“Where is heaven?” he said, “Heaven is with God. If Jesus tells us in the Gospels that heaven is loving and being in relationship with God, then can’t we say that heaven is not something just in the future, but can begin here and now? Eternity for us is something that can be realized even in this life. Because if we live in the presence of God, if we live connected to the Lord, we are already living and experiencing, the grace, the power and the gift of new life that Jesus gives us.”
“That’s the beautiful thing about Christianity – we live in the presence of the Lord and, for us, death is no longer a scary thing. Of course, humanly speaking it’s always scary, but we, as Christians, look at death from the perspective of Christ and His resurrection and the promise that He gave us when He said, ‘Where I am, you also may be. Come be in relationship with Me, and you will be with Me forever in eternity in heaven.’ ”
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