April 01, 2007

When It's Time To Let Go

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls, to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
"The breath goes now," and some say, "No:"

--John Donne

It's hard to let go of a loved one. It's hard to accept when that loved one makes the decision to die. I'm not talking, in this instance, of ending their life via suicide or euthanasia. I'm talking about the moment that they make the decision to forgo more treatment. The moment when they are tired. Tired, of therapy, tired of pills, just tired. They may perceive, or have been told by a trusted doctor, that there is no chance for a cure. The loved one may make a decision that they are ready to die. At that point, it can be harder for those of us who will remain behind to accept their choice. The loved one has probably been bracing themselves for the likelihood that this decision may come eventually for some time. Some of us, who are cargivers, may have known that the decision may come but it is still hard for everyone to accept when it does.

I've mentioned before that my I lost both my mother and my brother to cancer. My brother was very young when he died and any decision of what to do at the end of his life was left to my parents because my brother was incapable of deciding anything on his own. Both of them died at home. The family felt it was important that they pass on in loving and familiar surroundings. Neither of them wanted to be in an institution. It was really tough caring for them at home, but somehow we all made it work.

After years of battling cancer, one day my Mom said "That's it. No more" as we were riding down the elevator from the doctor's office. I drove her to the clinic that day for her weekly dose of chemotherapy and I could see that she had had enough on her face. My Mom was afraid of needles and as time went on it became harder for the nurses to find a vein that would not collapse. They would spend a lot of time digging around while my Mom winced, yelled and cried.

Two years ago we witnessed two simultaneous examples of death: Pope John Paul II and Terri Schiavo. The Holy Father embraced his cross (literally, as some of us saw during the televised Way of the Cross that week) with dignity, grace and holiness. He was surrounded by people who loved him. He had ready access to the Sacraments. He proved that he was no less vital a teacher in his twilight then he was during his vigorous years.

Terri Schiavo, on the other hand, had any decisions she may have made to go as gracefully as possible into eternal life forcibly taken from her. She was deprived of even the most merciful, basic care. She was deprived of nutrition and water. She was deprived of the presence of her loved ones. I seem to recall her family had to fight to even get the Sacraments to her.

Obviously, as Catholics, the Holy Father's death was a better example of appropriate end of life care and decisions then Terri Schiavo's was. However, I have a feeling the the Lord was equally and greatly merciful towards both of them.

Facing the end of life is not easy for any one. It's not easy for the dying person, it's not easy for the loved ones they will leave behind. We are all told that we must take up our Cross and follow Him. That we must unite our sufferings with Jesus' Passion. It is easier to hear about it then do it.

The painting that I chose to go with this post is Edvard Munch's By the Death Bed. Notice that the dying person almost melts into the bed. We don't even see the face of the dying person. What we do see are the mourners around the bed. But, we don't even see them in their entiriety. They have poorly defined mouths. No way to adequately convey their grief through words. We see their eyes, black rimmed and deep staring at us blankly or closed. Their heads bowed or up and stoic. Otherwise, they are largely expressionless.

How we treat the dying can teach us as much about ourselves and where our priorities are as it can teach the dying person unity with His suffering. We can see where the priorities of some of Terri Schiavo's family lay. Some were appropriate, others were not. During the later years of Pope John Paul II's pontificate, many were calling for him to step down because it was felt that anyone who is not 100% healthy should just go away and die quietly someplace else. A lot of people just can't face the thought of death. Even if it's not them or anyone they know personally. They just don't want to think about it.

This is why we have so many people dying all alone and unloved in nursing homes and hospital wards all over the world. They may not have family to care for them or perhaps they do but the family just doesn't want to deal with it so the dying person is sent away. It is not easy to care for someone who is dying. I've done it more then a few times. Someday that will be me. I can only pray that whoever is left gives a damn. If not, then I may have the opportunity to be truly just like Jesus during His Passion. How many spoke up and helped Him in his dying moments?

Gentle Reader: It is SO important that well before your final illness you make your wishes known. Not only where you want to be buried, your funeral and who you want to benefit from your estate, but also how you want your final care to go. You need to specify that under no circumstance are you to be denied water if that's what you want. Or perhaps, nutrition and water. It is critical that you specify that you want to receive Communion every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation. That you want a priest to be available to hear your regular Confession. That you want the Last Rites and the Apostolic Pardon (if necessary). Where will you be cared for? Who will care for you? How will you pay for it? Choose an executor, preferably a practicing Catholic, to make sure your wishes are followed. Don't wait. Think about it now. Do it now.

It's a sad fact of life that you may THINK your loved ones will do X when you are in your dying hour, the reality is they may do Y. People are human. Sometimes we take the easy route.

Recommended Reading: There are many excellent Catholic texts on end-of-life care. A good place to start is Part 5 of the USCCB Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, Fourth Edition

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

--Alfred Lord Tennyson


Blogger Adoro said...

Ok, that one made me cry. Great post. Please pass me a kleenex.

April 01, 2007 1:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post and lots of good advice!

April 01, 2007 3:06 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This is such a perfect post for me today, the beginning of Holy Week.

I begin my official duties as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Minneapolis on Holy Thursday. I have had several "walk-alongs" and a bit of "solo-ing" and have already been exposed to near death, amputations, paralysis and other chronic and acute debilitating injuries and diseases.

And I'm aging also.

Thank you for posting this, Cathy. This is a post that all of us should save, occasionally re-read and distribute to our loved ones.

April 01, 2007 4:18 PM  

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