Last week I wrote about dying alone. This week I’ll share a few additional thoughts on death and dying, mostly in story form. I’m posting this on Memorial Day, the day we Americans remember in prayer and gratitude those men and women who died while serving our country in the U.S. military. As I did last week, I’m basing this reflection on my interviews with four friends who have ministered to the dying and their families for many years. Those friends are Marla, Donna, Helen, and Gail.
Gail said, “Death is as unique as the individual who is experiencing it.” Some individuals give clear directives about how they want to die, saying or writing things like this: “I want my family and close friends with me, if possible… I will spend quality time with my family and friends before the actual event of dying… I want to be alone with God when I die.” Some individuals even help plan their own funerals.
Marla told the story of a man who struggled with alcohol for years, before joining AA. He eventually ran AA meetings and served as a sponsor for many. Shortly before he died, he sent for Marla. When she entered his home, she found an elderly, white-bearded man sitting at the foot of his bed, a man he had sponsored in AA. I thought it was significant that Marla (his pastoral care minister) and his “AA Brother” were two people the dying man wanted to see as he neared his heavenly home.
Helen’s father was in a small residential home. One morning, a nurse came in and asked him what he wanted for breakfast. Her father enthusiastically described in detail what he wanted: two eggs sunny-side up, two strips of bacon, a small glass of orange juice, two pieces of rye toast buttered, and coffee with cream. When the nurse returned with the breakfast 20 minutes later, Helen’s father was dead. Some people slip into eternity very quickly and unexpectedly–even minutes after ordering a hearty breakfast.
How can we support our loved ones when they are dying? All four pastoral ministers said, “Don’t wait until someone is dying to say what you need to say to them—like ‘I love you,” or asking their forgiveness for something, or telling them how much they mean to you.” Donna also said that sometimes we have to give our loved one permission to die. The others agreed. One elderly man was dying for days at home and was extremely restless. When his wife of many years finally gave him permission to die, his restlessness subsided and he died shortly after. Donna also said, “We don’t have to use a lot of words when someone we love is dying. Touch becomes more important than words. Hold their hand… stroke their forehead—whatever you feel comfortable with.” She added, “And don’t be afraid to share your tears with them.”
A primary teacher was dying at home. Gail came twice a week to pray with her. The woman asked Gail if they could use the children’s book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss. The book ends with, “Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way!” Says Gail, “That was one of the most unique prayer times I ever shared with someone who was dying.”
If we can’t be physically present with someone who is dying, we can always send a card, call them on the phone, or use Facetime, Zoom, or some other way to connect with them. And remember, praying for someone who is dying is another way of being with them.
Marla told the story of a woman dying at home. Her beloved cat used to jump on her bed. But, as the woman neared death, the cat’s weight on the bed caused her physical pain. So her son put the cat in the basement. After the woman died and the funeral directors removed her body, Marla suddenly heard the cat meowing at the basement door. When she opened it, the cat bolted into the woman’s room and onto her bed. Then the cat began to wail—not simply meow. “It was a howling unlike anything the family had ever heard before,” said Marla, “and it lasted for quite some time.” Marla believes the cat knew the woman had died and was mourning her loss.
Gail shared this story from the writer Robert Wicks in Touching the Holy. In an old cemetery somewhere in the U.S. there are two gravestones next to each other. One is a “large imposing marker” for a famous general. It lists all the battles he won and his many accomplishments. The other is a small stone for a young woman who died at 21. The inscription reads, “Everywhere she went, she brought flowers.” We do not need to fret over when, where, and how we will die or what we will be remembered for. All is in God’s hands. Instead let us live our lives in such a way that we bring the flowers of love, beauty, and goodness into other people’s lives simply by being who we are.
Is there anything in this reflection you would like to respond to?
Have you had any experiences with death that you would like to share with us?
What are some of your thoughts about your own death?
Our song today is “Remember Me,” a beautiful song written by Deborah Govenor. How blessed are we Christians, for we have Jesus… we have the Eucharist… we have his resurrection and his promise of eternal life…
I welcome you to share your thoughts below. Thank you!