Mark Miller, C.Ss.R. Ph.D.
Several years ago, in a book on the ethics of death and dying, Kenneth Vaux made the odd statement, “Never treat the living like the dying, nor the dying like the living.” He was trying to distinguish between the kind of medical treatment which is appropriate for someone who is ill but will recover compared to treatment for the person who is irreversibly dying. Nonetheless, his statement conveyed a common prejudice about the dying, namely, that they are somehow different than the living. But the dying are also living! And it is only in the last twenty years, I believe, that health care has begun to take seriously this aspect of living, particularly through palliative and/or hospice care.
Nonetheless, before palliative care finds its true place in our health care system, I believe that modern society itself needs to face up to death more realistically. Indeed, we all need to recover some sense of the privileged time of one’s dying. In our fears about death, we live as if death were never going to happen. Hence, crises that occur when a sudden illness strikes are often compounded by a total lack of preparation for our own death or that of a loved one. We need to be more willing to talk to each other about dying. (And let us try not to dismiss such talk as ‘morbid.’ That is just a good way of avoiding either the discussions or the emotions that go with the issue.) In accord with some of the deepest traditions of our Christian wisdom, we need to spend more time reflecting upon the reality of our own death, especially in the light of Jesus’ salvific death for us. Finally, I strongly believe that we need to allow dying persons to speak about their dying or about the issues that are important to them while dying.
I suspect, however, that many people shudder when I suggest that a dying person should think about his or her dying. In our society death is not a pleasant topic—at least, one’s own death—even though we are fascinated by celluloid death, by the constant stream of killing on television and in the movies. Most of us still do not want to think about their own dying. Indeed, many people summarize all their thoughts about death with the phrase “I would like a sudden death, no lingering.’
Yet people who have time to die often express a tremendous gratitude for that time. It may at first be difficult to come to terms with the reality that one’s life, as one knows it, will soon be over. And there may be some very difficult stages that one has to go through in coming to terms with dying—loneliness, anger, denial, depression.
Still, there can be a great deal of beauty and profound wisdom during this stage of one’s life. The dying, for example, generally move from a preoccupation with daily life’s thousand details to the important questions about life. Who am I? Is this all there is? Does my dying (and, therefore, my life) have any meaning? Such questions force a person to look into the depths of his or her creatureliness, nothingness, and finitude. And they can be scary questions.
However, such questions also open doors to answers, maybe not the answers we expect (like, can I continue living as before?) but answers which can best be described as transcendent. Either life (and death) has meaning or it is absurd. Rational conclusions to such a question pale beside the reality of one’s own death. Dying forces us more deeply into ourselves and into the utter reality of such questions— and may lead to surprising ‘answers.’ Final acceptance of one’s dying, for example, often brings a peace with it which the person has never before experienced. One is ‘safe,’ though no ‘rational’ explanation is possible. Something much deeper has occurred.
For the Christian there are two processes taking place concerning which we need a greater awareness. First, I have seen many believers question the reality of a loving God who would allow them to die. Intellectually, they know that death is part of life. But in the reality of their dying, they are not ready to let go, nor to trust the God who is calling them. In other words, believers tend to ‘create’ a God in their ordinary daily life with whom they are comfortable, a God who is not allowed to make too many demands upon them. The challenge to one’s faith of dying may well be part of the very journey of faith, much like dying is part of living. Dying, which is often felt as a total lack of control over one’s life, may feel like this (long-comfortable) God has abandoned the patient. However, the reality is that now the dying person must reach out in a new form or a new depth of faith and encounter the living God who loves us even in weakness and death. Such, I believe, is one of the most profound lessons of Jesus on the Cross.
Second, I often think of the poem ‘Footprints in the Sand’ as an image for those who are dying. As life slips from one’s grasp, as all the emotions which accompany this journey of loss overwhelm the individual, it is easy to think or feel that God has disappeared. Yet, if there’s only one set of footprints in the sand, it is only when we look back that we realize it is God who is carrying us. Part of Jesus’ message was that there is a special place in God’s own heart for ‘the little ones,’ that is, those who have no power or control over their fate. If that is true of children, outcasts, and the marginalized, I believe it is also true for the dying. They are losing what they thought was control of their lives. It is very difficult and often overwhelming to ‘let go.’ To believe Jesus, however, means that God is there all along and the dying person has but to learn the new ways to touch and be touched by that living God who cannot abandon us.
Christians ought not to be afraid of death, for we believe in a resurrection to the fullness of life. Nonetheless, for all the reasons that make us human, we are generally no more immune to the fears of death than others. Perhaps, however, we need only to see dying as part of the process of living-with-God (who lives with us, Immanuel!) to perhaps even look forward to the opportunity to enter into our dying as part of our living in faith. As the great American Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”