Dying Can be a Lonely Business

I am well aware that I myself may not have very much time on earth left. Death itself does not worry me, but I must admit that the process of dying does because I suspect it will involve facing my worst fear — not being able to breathe. I am sure many people can identify with that or have some other deep-seated fear that may be difficult to put into words.

Preparing for Death

We who know death is drawing closer tend to fret about arrangements, ensuring those we love are properly looked after or suffer as little inconvenience as possible, knowing full well that nothing ever works out quite as planned. We realise, probably too late, that procrastination in some matters was really rather silly but are too weak or too sick to do anything about it. Then there are our friends. Those closest to us tend to be reticent, not knowing what to do or say but keeping their distance to allow us time to get on with things. Others want daily updates and bombard us with ‘How are you today?’ messages which make the heart sink because there is no energy to respond and, anyway, what do we say? Others again want to deny the reality of the situation and pretend we are going to get better. At least in the monastery we don’t have to do that! The trouble is, preparing for death isn’t quite the same as preparing for dying, and that is where I think the confusion, and sometimes disappointment, arise.

Prayer for the Dying

The experience I am now going through has confirmed me in my view that the prayer we offer for the sick is the prayer they would offer themselves, were they not sick. It is not so much a prayer to get better as adoration, love, praise, intercession for others. Prayer for the dying, I think, is slightly different. Dying can be a lonely business. We do not want to burden others, but there are moments when we would like to talk a little or prepare sacramentally in a way that COVID-19 has made more difficult. I am fortunate in that I have a monk on standby, so to say, who has promised to come whatever the day or hour to give me the Last Sacraments. There are many more who do not have such an assurance. I am convinced that prayer for the dying asks more of us than a glancing reference in the Hail Mary.

I would suggest that prayer for the dying is a very simple prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. That is to say, it is a prayer for light, strength and a making good of whatever may have gone wrong in the dying person’s life, and for those supporting them in their last days. In the case of the dying it is not the injuries done to ourselves that we grieve for but those we have done to others, many of whom will now be beyond the scope of apology or reconciliation. These can cause a deep anguish that cannot easily be expressed. In the case of carers, there are so many contradictory emotions to go through, from exhaustion to feeling ‘guilty’ that we have not done enough.

Our prayer for the dying therefore, by its very nature, must be ongoing. I myself may have days, weeks, even months, left: who knows? Nor do I know the extent of the demands I may make on others. But during sleepless nights or when everything seems black or hopeless, it is a consolation to know that someone is praying, that I face this last and most uncertain journey in the company of others, and those I care about, those looking after me, are likewise prayed for. The loneliness of dying is lessened and there is the bright hope of eternity somewhere over the horizon. Please join me in praying for all who are dying at this time, and for those caring for them.

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81 thoughts on “Dying Can be a Lonely Business”

  1. Will do. Thank you for a tremendously helpful steer on this; and God bless your own pilgrimage and, by extension, that of your Community.

  2. I have no words but yours leave my heart full. Thank you for your insightful reminder of our shared destiny, indeed the one thing which does unite all of us. Whatever earthly time remains for you, I bless you for your sharing your faith and your experience with us and for giving my own prayers (for the sick and dying, and their carers) a renewed focus and love.

  3. As a Soul Midwife l totally understand your thoughts. Supporting a person as they are dying is a privilege. In amongst the clinical and practical needs is perhaps the most important work of all; completing the 5 tasks of living. 1)asking for forgiveness 2) offering forgiveness 3)saying thank you 4) saying l love you 5) saying goodbye. The Sacraments are a huge support in this regard, and l am sorry that you haven’t always had access to them during your illness. So pleased to know that you have a monk ready to attend to you. Thank you for your steady sharing of your journey.

  4. Be assured of prayers for you and Quietnun and your supportive Oblates, thank you for the focus on the Holy Spirit as Comforter and I hope the furry one can be a comfort as well.

  5. I have prayed for you pretty much daily since discovering your blog. This post shouldn’t, but does make me sad. I suppose that it is a reminder that the last days must be faced. I believe but death is still such an unknown and therefore scary! So it is a reminder that my faith isn’t quite as strong as I wish it was. (Too many I’s in the above).
    This post is a reminder that my prayer needs to be more Spirit centered and for all who accompany and support you.
    I am so pleased that I heard you once on Woman’s Hour and followed your blog since. I do hope that you know there are numerous people who pray for you across the globe and there must be few times when at least one has not mentioned you especially those parts of the world in daylight while Hertfordshire is in nighttime. God bless you Sister and your community

  6. Thank you for thinking of others at this time and sharing your own experience .
    Many wise friends have said it is not dying that brings fear but the process .
    May you and others be comforted by the great Comforter and by the certainty that many are praying .
    God be with you and them

  7. Thank you. You have crystallised my own thoughts. As a full time carer for my wife, probably in the early stages of dementia, and with a set of conditions myself that are increasingly disabling and life-threatening, I have much to consider.

  8. When I visited my great university friend as she was dying of cancer, only 48, in a hospice in Edinburgh, she told me she felt she was being carried in a hammock of prayers. I have never forgotten that image and pray that you will know you are being held, and those who care for you, every step of the road. God bless you.

  9. Be sure you are not alone. There will be cohorts both in Heaven and on earth praying for you while you experience the awful loneliness of dying. “Do not be Afraid ….. ” We shall try to remember all you have taught us. Dear Sister .. Someone will be holding your hand … With love and prayers. Elizabeth

  10. Others have said all that needs to be said but thank you dear Sr Catherine for your candour, wisdom and willingness to share with us. I love your blog and learn so much from it day by day. You and your community are always in my prayers. God bless you.

  11. as an ex nurse I have seen many people die, I don’t know how but God makes it a beautiful process, just like going to sleep. I’ve never seen anyone fight for breath, just a gentle acceptance of the process, how it happens is another of God’s miracles we don’t understand. Thank you for the lovely balm you have poured over us and will continue to do in your new life xx

  12. I pray that He knows all your fears and erases them for your comfort and being held by Him and those supporting you with the hands of prayer Sr Catherine is also a soothing comfort.

    Not a religious passage but a quote by Virginia Woolf that seems true in these circumstances;

    To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is…at last, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away…”

    ― Virginia Woolf

  13. Thank for this thoughtful, and encouraging, blog, dear Sister Catherine. I, too, am glad that you have a monk ready to serve when you need him. May the Spirit be with you always.

  14. Dame Catherine, Words seem so inadequate. As you have shared your faith you have touched myself & countless others who have come across your work. In the darkest of those hours of the night know that we lift you to be covered by His comfort.

  15. I will do all that you ask.

    I’ve travelled the road to death with my dear co-granny, my exasperating cousin and my evangelical sister-in-law.

    The practical help was easy, but knowing when to shut up and what to say when talking was the hardest. So I shall also pray that your wise words will reach all those who will, sooner or later, be facing death or caring for those who are.

  16. Dear Sister Catherine, we your devoted followers have always realised that your time on Earth could end very quickly. We will miss you greatly, but know that God will have a special place for you in Heaven.
    Personally l have much to be grateful to you for. I have learnt the value of patience, humility, kindness, gentleness and compassion for everyone. You have spread Christianity and God’s message of peace and love to the world from the confines of your community. All those who have received your missives through the ether have benefited greatly from your wisdom, love and guidance.
    I lost my dear wife, Barbara, nearly eight years ago to pulmonary fibrosis and COPD. She was frightened of dying gasping for breath but we were assured that, toward the end, she wouldn’t experience such distress as the lack of oxygen and surfeit of unvented carbon dioxide would render her unconscious well before death occurred. She was in a coma for the last three days of her life.
    No-one can predict such an outcome for others but l hope the good Lord will be merciful to you dear Sister Catherine as you make the journey from Earth to Heaven.
    I will intensify my prayers for you. I will be sad to lose contact with you but will never forget you. May the good Lord hold you tenderly with love and take you up when the time is ready for your new life to begin. Peace, love and joy be with you now and always

  17. Dear Sister Catherine. You will be in my thoughts and prayers. A small thank you for all the prayers I have asked of the Community. There is a beautiful prayer said when a dying person is anointed:

    Go forth upon your journey from this world,
    in the name of God the Father Almighty who created you;
    in the name of Jesus Christ who suffered death for you;
    in the name of the Holy Spirit who strengthens you;
    in communion with the blessed saints,
    and aided by angels and archangels,
    and all the armies of the heavenly host.
    May your portion this day be in peace,
    and your dwelling the heavenly Jerusalem.

    Amen.

    God bless.

  18. Thank you for making that distinction so clearly: it is the physical, more in the end than the spiritual, which clouds our dying.

    Always, the prayers of those who care deeply for you, lift you into the radiance of God’s love, and pray for your repose, for the easing of each breath, for peace.

  19. Thank you dear sister for your real-ness. Before I went abroad many years ago I was told (tongue in cheek) that I would be given the Lords grace to manage being “boiled in oil”when I was actually in the “oil”! “Boiling oil grace” has sustained me since then and with love and faith and in the Holy Spirit, I offer you that “dying grace” is and will be yours because of the love of the Creator in whom you are held. You do the holding fast and receiving. All who love you will be the praying ones…

  20. I just want to take this opportunity to thank you, with love, for all your wise posts. We haven’t managed to go to a church service since last October and you have helped me to keep on track. ❤️

  21. Dear Sr Catherine,
    I agree totally with all the comments and wise words written above. You are not just a wise and loving guide, offering little nudges towards a deeper relationship with God. You have become a warm and consoling travelling companion along the way. The process of dying is for me, too, the greater dread. I nursed my husband to the end of his life, he had a brain tumour, and the very moment of his death he suddenly tried to sit up, having obviously seen something lovely which he tried to tell me about. There were 3 other people present who were all convinced of this, not just wishful thinking on my part. From then on fear of death left me. His final gift to me, his comforting presence with me always. I pray that you may receive such unexpected help exactly when you most need it and that until then we all may continue to learn from your example. With my love.

  22. Like others who have responded, I thank you sincerely for the wise words that you have written in your many blogs. I have appreciated them greatly and particularly the way in which they have challenged my own attitudes and thinking.
    John Wesley’s dying words were “The best of all is, God is with us”. I pray that may be your experience too.

  23. May the Lord God comfort you and strengthen you and give you peace on your journey home.
    Thank you for all you have taught me through your blog, it has been a great blessing.

  24. Dear Sister Catherine,

    Your authenticity, honesty and humility has touched me and helped me in canada connect with you from afar. Yes, faith and fidelity transcend.

    It was and is a joy.

    I bless your journey toward the eternal good and perfection, and communion with your Lord, All mighty.

  25. Thank you for this article which has come to my notice at just the right time. My 96-year-old mother is now bedridden and, in her own words, “Waiting for God”. It is hard on us who love and care for her but she truly is at peace. I had all but forgotten the power of prayer – or at least how to pray for someone near the end of their life – and I found your words extremely comforting. May God Bless you.

  26. Thank you so much for sharing these consoling thoughts, dear Catherine.

    I cling to the belief that the Lord gives us only what we can endure and when we are most in want, His Grace abounds…

    May you know the peace of His embrace.

  27. I have a dear friend who is dying.

    Many years ago, I lost a child to a heart defect and a pretty tangled pulmonary issue. Her death was shockingly sudden, and she was still just a little baby. I was shredded for years. Two women of my mother’s generation, each of whom was ahead of me on the journey through dire grief of child loss, were my beacons. One is truly devout; the other much less so, and may even be (according to our many conversations) a questioner and doubter, and yet she is a well-loved member of her own congregation. She has suffered greatly: she lost a daughter to a terminal illness and a son to murder.

    And yet, by far, she is the kindest and most generous woman I have ever met: she is a gentlewoman to her bones, even when she is attacking weeds and garden invaders with huge shears and pruning saws; she is also a poet. How she came back to light and life after her two terrible bereavements is beyond me to comprehend, never mind explain.

    And yet, when it was my turn, she just offered me her thoughts and friendship, and in doing so helped me climb out of that abyss of grief.

    Now she is dying: my old friend Meg is a “companion” of sorts on your same journey.

    Her family is mostly non-believers to anti-believers, but they know I am a Catholic.

    To one of them I have said, “I know this is not the way you do things, but your mother is in my prayers daily and has been for years.” And then I related that my elder daughter and I have a shorthand way of letting each other know that something, or someone, needs our prayers. Our shorthand is, “HMs, please.” And of course, we pray for whatever we ask of each other. I hoped it would let them know, without offending the non-believers, that their mother is constantly in my prayers.

    A day or two later, I received a progress report email with this subject line: “More HMs, please!” One never knows when even the lightest touch, though an earnest one, will help buoy a flagging spirit.

    My mother, as she was dying, once said to me, “Earth is so beautiful. How can anyone bear to leave it?” And there lies the crux, in both senses of the world. Yet the dying give us hope: Elizabeth of the Trinity said she was “going to Light, to Love, to Life!” and so we cling to the hope of a journey to Light, Life, Love: and at last, to rest in the Source of all light, love, life.

    In the years since my daughter’s death, and then my mother’s, I have become convinced that the “veil” between here and eternity is very thin indeed. Those who have left us are both not-here and here, accompanying us every step of the way: we are never alone. The journey away from earth is ours to undertake, and no one can do it for us, but we are never alone.

    In those dark moments, dear Dame Catherine, hold to Light, Love, Life—and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. These two lines kept me afloat in some terribly dark times after losing my little one, so I offer them, along with many HMs, to keep you company in the alone times in the dark: He Whom you adore will banish all that you fear, and bring you safely home: to Light, to Life, and to Love. You are one of his Beloveds, and the place He has prepared is very beautiful. May the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Consoler, abide in you and bring you heart’s ease.

  28. It’s interesting that, to an extent, there are parallels in what you’re saying between knowing of your impending death and an impending birth.

    You get to a point (I’m there now awaiting the birth of my baby) where people are contacting you constantly, to ask “How are you?” “is the baby here yet?” and you don’t have the physical or mental reserves to answer.
    There’s also the whole you can prepare for the process of birth but not the bit after. Like death, it’s unpredictable.

    Sending lots of love to you and the community 🙂

  29. You’ve been a very special friend to us through your blog, Sister Catherine, in good times and in bad. In addition to your cauliflower cheese recipe, I’ve written some of your comments on recipe cards and they remain tucked in my recipe box, re-read from time to time.
    You’ve given us different perspectives from which to view and understand our faith and encouraged us in ways you wouldn’t imagine.
    I hope to meet you on the other side in time just as I hope to meet my grandmothers who passed before I was born. We will not forget you and wish you comfort and peace.

  30. Read this post & from Brink message after hospital, left for 24 hrs, before writing. Agree death can sometimes be a Lonely event; But it doesn’t have to be. From my experience in cancer palliative care; Even a tea candle fragrance burning, lavender or similar; smell can also be an important comfort in the final days & hours.

  31. With sincere thanks for so many informed, thoughtful, and always kind and encouraging posts Dame Catherine, over many years. You have made this form of evangelisation your own, and yours is the only blog I regularly follow. In faraway NZ I am praying for a miracle, something by no means unknown in our Catholic tradition. With thanks and love, Alison

  32. I had no words, so I didn’t comment….but hold you all in concerned love and prayer, and with hope/confidence that you will experience the “hammock” of the prayers of so many… and that the end, when it comes, will be as peaceful and gentle a we would all wish for ourselves or our loved ones. Travel well, my friend..

  33. Dear Dame Catherine; you’ve been inspirational in your living and stillingly so in your dying. Thank you and God bless you. We will miss you but your words of truth and reality will reverberate in the hearts and minds of many.

  34. June 24 after reading Twitter post of June 23.

    Constant prayers, Dear Dame Catherine.

    Weeding, washing up, doing laundry, dusting, running an errand, in or out of church, my own middle of the night wake-ups—you are ever in my prayers.

    Much love, and God be with you always—

    Anne

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