Grateful to Our Beloved Dead: Remembering 3 Lessons From My Polish Grandparents This All Saints’ Day

Lighted candles on graves in a Catholic cemetary in Warsaw, Poland
Lighted candles adorn graves in a Catholic cemetery in Warsaw, Poland.

It’s tradition in Polish culture to pay tribute to deceased loved ones with frequent visits to their gravesites, especially on All Saints’ Day. Lighting candles at tombstones symbolizes the perpetual light shining upon our loved ones in their eternal life with Jesus. As a result, when evening’s darkness descends upon Polish cemeteries in November, the entire terrain is illuminated with flickering flames of light. It’s such a major holiday that in 2019, Biedronka, a large supermarket chain store in Poland, “sold 27 million grave lanterns in the six weeks around November [1st],” and of the “300 million sales of grave candles (znicze) each year in Poland, two-thirds” occur around All Saints’ Day. 

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Each year, when I light votives at Our Lady of Częstochowa Shrine in Doylestown, PA, where my grandparents Stefania and Stanisław Szczygieł and Wacław Bernaś are buried, I pray for the eternal repose of their souls, remember fondly the light they shined in my life, and reflect on the lessons they taught me. 

Faith takes courage

Devout Catholics and prayerful people, my grandparents instilled in me the importance of praising God, beseeching his blessings in hardship, and trusting him. They cultivated a profound and persistent emphasis on faith because of the restrictions they had to endure during Communist-occupied Poland (1945 to 1970, the year they migrated to the U.S.). Under the Communist regime, the secular state was rule of law, and worship was prohibited and punishable. Ironically, what the Communists tried to quench actually became more fervent, with people practicing their faith undercover. 

Eventually, the Communists condoned worship by ignoring it when it happened. However, any federal employee caught in the act could be penalized. That’s why my grandfather Wacław, a police officer at the time, had to hide in the choir of St. Peter and Paul Church in Kraków to watch his daughter (my mother) receive her First Holy Communion. For my grandparents, faith was a high-stakes risk, yet their commitment to God remained unwavering. Because of their conviction, I am not afraid to profess what I believe, even in the midst of a highly secularized, polarized, and ready-to-cancel society. As a young adult, I used to cower in conversations, staying quiet when surrounded by friends who passionately believed in providing unmitigated access to abortions or who gravely misunderstood the church, for example; however, now, I profess what I believe with Christian humility and fortitude. That is in no small part due to the lessons of courage from my grandparents. 

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Faith provides courage

My grandparents relied on their faith to surmount difficult times. Before they met, Stefania and Stanisław were both forcefully sent to separate German labor camps during World War II. They endured payless backbreaking farm work while American war planes flew overhead. Every day, they prayed that the Americans wouldn’t bomb the fields they worked in so they could live to see another day. They put their trust in the Lord. My grandfather Wacław had to do the same when he helped the underground Polish rebellion by furnishing them with weapons to fight in WWII.

When my two sets of grandparents immigrated to America, they faced their fair share of challenges, such as a language barrier and prejudice against the newest immigrant group. They undertook labor that no one else wanted to do at the time: Wacław picked cabbage and cauliflower on a Long Island farm; Stanisław worked in maintenance; and Stefania made money in housekeeping. They persevered through these challenges because they knew that it gave them and their children an opportunity in a new country, where they could worship freely. Through their perseverance, I learned to trust in God’s plan, which is revealed in God’s time. In many facets of my life, there are still unknowns: Where will my career in education lead? What writing opportunities will come my way? What will family life look like for my husband and me, who are entering our fourth year of marriage? I learned to rely less on trying to plan and control every aspect of life and more on trusting God’s will for me. I trust him to help me gain clarity and discern, a slow but meaningful process.

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Family is a manifestation of Christ’s love for us

I grew up living upstairs from my paternal grandparents, and this proximal closeness begot a family closeness that is special to multi-generational households. My grandfather Stanisław made his special baked potatoes on Sunday nights before we watched America’s Funniest Videos together. My grandmother Stefania taught me how to make her famous leek salad and plum knedle. I also gave my grandmother English lessons with homework assignments (which, unbeknownst to me, my older sister completed for her — I laugh now at this innocent family treachery!). Our love for each other surely was ignited by the love we shared for our Lord, as we prayed together, went to Mass together, and celebrated joyfully the sacraments we received.

As my grandparents aged, in my middle school years, I watched them suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, and I witnessed my parents’ constant care for them. Though it wasn’t easy, this experience taught me about the dignity in all life at every stage of life. They showed me what St. John Paul II meant when he wrote, “[S]uffering, while still an evil and a trial in itself, can always become a source of good. It becomes such if it is experienced for love and with love through sharing, by God’s gracious gift and one’s own personal and free choice, in the suffering of Christ Crucified.” 

As I light another set of candles on All Saints’ Day, I think about how grateful I am that I learned so much from my deceased grandparents, and that I can keep learning — from my grandmother Mieczysława who, at age 91, is still sharing her stories and wisdom to this day. 

Originally published n November 1, 2021.