One of the heart-breaking consequences of the current pandemic is that many people cannot be with their loved ones at the time of their death. Those left behind often suffer great anguish because their loved ones died alone. Their stories raise a bigger question: Does anyone die alone?
The obvious answer seems to be yes, for some people do die with no one else physically present with them. But, does that mean they die alone? To answer that question, I interviewed four women with years of experience ministering to the dying and their families in hospitals, nursing homes, private homes, hospice centers, and (in a few cases) even by the side of a highway. The women are Marla (with 20 years experience) and three Sisters of Notre Dame, Donna (22 years), Helen (9 years), and Gail (26 years). I found their experiences and insights extremely valuable—so much so that I will devote two blogs to the topic of death and dying. After all, how can we be living during a pandemic without reflecting on the reality of death?
When I posed the question, “Does anyone die alone?” to my four friends, Gail immediately responded with another question: “Are we ever really alone?” It’s a good question. If we as Catholics/Christians believe that God is with us throughout our entire life, then why would we think that God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit would not be with us as we are dying—whether we are alone or not?
Years ago there was a TV program called Touched by An Angel. It starred a trio of angels: Monica (Roma Downey), Tess (Della Reese) her supervisor, and Andrew (John Dye) the angel of death. Andrew was not someone to be terrified of. Instead he was a smiling, kind, and gentle young man who described his job as “bringing people home.” When people lay dying, many times alone, Andrew was with them, often taking their hand or actually holding them. All the while he assured them that “God loves you so much” or “You have nothing to be afraid of.” He helped people die, that is, he walked beside them into their new heavenly life, represented by a bright white light.
But what if there is no gentle angel of death? Is there anyone else present (besides God!) to help the dying person transition to eternal life? Helen said that when she is with someone who is actively dying, she often senses that the deceased loved ones of the dying person are also present in the room. The other three agreed. Helen said, their deceased loved ones are “encouraging the person to ‘let go’ and ‘come.'” Some dying people actually talk to a deceased spouse, parent, or other loved one—even though no one else in the room sees them.
A beautiful poem by Henry Van Dyke expresses this idea and is often used at wakes and funerals. The poem ends with these words: Just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There, she is gone!” there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”
Donna said, “Sometimes the dying seem to choose to die alone.” Marla, Gail, and Helen agreed. They all told stories of family members keeping vigil with their loved one for hours or even days. Some families take shifts around the clock so their dying loved one is never alone. But when the one keeping vigil leaves the room only for a minute (perhaps to go to the bathroom) and returns, their loved one has died. When this happens, Marla consoles families by saying, “Maybe your mother (father, husband, wife, grandparent, sister, etc.) loved you so much, she (he) couldn’t let go of life in your presence. So she waited to be alone to die.”
These words are not meant to mitigate the suffering people experience when denied access to their dying loved ones. My heart goes out to them. At the same time, we must remember that despite all we know about death, death still remains an unfathomable mystery.
But if we, throughout our lives, have repeatedly placed our own life and the lives of our loved ones into God’s loving care, then we must trust that God will be embracing us and our loved ones at the moment of death. Then we will face death in the same way we have faced all the fears, trials, uncertainties, and unknowns of our life: with deep faith and complete trust in the God who loves us more than we can imagine.
Next week’s reflection on death and dying will hone in on some ways to be with the dying, plus some thoughts on our own death. I want to thank Marla, Donna, Helen, and Gail for sharing their years of experience with us. I asked them for the names of some books that they found helpful in their ministry. Here are their suggestions:
Let Someone Hold You by Paul Morrissey, hospice priest (Donna); The Grace in Dying by Kathleen Dowling Singh (Marla); Being with Dying by Joan Halifax (Gail); Grieving with Hope by Samuel Hodges and Kathy Leonard (Helen); (and my suggestion) Send My Roots Rain: A Companion on the Grief Journey by Kim Langley.
Did anything in this reflection stir your heart?
PS: Announcement: I will be giving a “Zoom retreat” sponsored by the King’s House Retreat and Renewal Center in Belleville, IL from July 13-20, 2020. This is my first Zoom retreat, so I’m excited about it. This means you can stay at home and tune in to the 2 conferences each day with the other retreatants. I will be at home too! See the retreat center’s website for details.
I am offering two videos today. The first is “How Great Thou Art,” sung here by Chris Rice. This 1885 hymn is often sung at funerals. The second is a short video about Peyo, a therapy horse who comforts the sick and dying.
“How Great Thou Art” Sung by Chris Rice:
Peyo, the therapy horse… I thank my friend, Fr. Rich of Pittsburgh, for sending me this video:
Do you have any thoughts or responses to today’s reflection or videos? If so, please respond below.