No Condolences Yet, Please

This post won’t be to everyone’s taste but I offer it in the hope that it may help some who are facing their own death or the death of someone they love. Audio version at the end.

A Herefordshire oak seen from the monastery
An old battered oak not far from the monastery

Did you know that in the sixteenth century the word ‘pragmatic’ meant something like ‘busy’ or ‘conceited’? Only in the nineteenth did it acquire its current sense of being realistic or related to facts rather than theory. I have always prided myself on being a pragmatic person, but I am left wondering which meaning of the word I should apply to myself this morning. 

On Wednesday I agreed with my oncology team that I won’t be having the chemotherapy scheduled to begin at Easter. It would have been the third kind I have been given and was a treatment of last resort. It may be possible to have some later; it may not. The window of opportunity for these things can be quite small. I have known since diagnosis that my cancer (metastatic leiomyosarcoma) is incurable save by a miracle. The fact that there is a lot of disease in my lungs and heart makes any kind of treatment problematic, but especially now that COVID-19 stalks the land. Just going to the hospital is risky because it would expose me to infection; having further treatment is risky because it would depress even further my compromised immune system; and how could anyone in my position contemplate putting more strain on the NHS?* That is the voice of reason: straightforward, clear-eyed, pragmatic in the commonly accepted sense.

But we aren’t all reason. We are emotion as well. And I am now bustling around like a demented hen, trying to do all the things that, to be honest, I should have done long ago. There is a sock drawer to be tidied, an immense quantity of paperwork to be sorted, jobs here, there and everywhere to be completed. I know I will never actually get them all done. I am not sufficiently well organized or disciplined, but I shall try. That, too, is being pragmatic, but in the older sense of being busy and active, even a little conceited that I am the master of my fate. I’m not, and that’s something I still have to learn to accept.

But what about dying itself? We all have our own views on that. The chances are that, in common with many others, if I die in the next few months, I shall die without the sacraments. I cannot easily express what that means to me, but if that should be my lot, I know that it is one I will share with many others, including many great saints. Can it really be so lonely to tread a path many have travelled before? I don’t know. What I do know is that whether I die alone or with someone watching at my bedside, with the sacraments or without, I shall be surrounded by the prayers of the great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, who make up the communion of saints. So, surely, it will not be so lonely after all.

Death opens onto life, but the process of getting there, the business of dying, is not always easy. I have sat beside too many people as they lay dying not to know that it can be messy and painful. There is no point, however, in worrying about that before it happens. I do worry about the community and my family and friends, but I know I can do nothing about them, either. Worry, like guilt, is never very helpful. We must simply abandon ourselves to the business of dying and trust to God for the rest. How, then, shall I prepare to die?

I think I shall begin by saying ‘thank-you’. In fact, I rather suspect I may not get much beyond that. I want to thank God for everyone and everything, for the gift of life itself, for family, friends and community; for those who have looked after me so diligently; for faith, no matter how wobbly it has been at times; for all the enthusiasms that have filled my life and continue to surprise me with unexpected joys, including the slightly ridiculous ones with four paws and waggly tails.

Then, I shall go on as before, for as long as I can. Not for me the ‘last visits’ or ‘bucket lists’ of the super-organized. I’m a Benedictine, after all, and one of the things I love about Benedictines is that we are always slightly shambolic. The routines of monastic life are never absolute but they do prepare us for death because they involve dying a little more to self every day. The silence, the solitude, the asceticisms of our life are all a preparation. They are meant to make us more loving, more joyful, more eager to enter into eternity, but they do not make us value the beauty and holiness of our earthly life any less. In fact, I think they make our appreciation of this world and everyone and everything in it keener. 

I’m hoping I’ll have a good while left but I don’t intend any radical change in my way of life.  A conversion would be nice, but I do wonder whether I’d be capable of one. I’ve talked before about limping into eternity, and I think that’s the right verb.

So, have I reached any conclusions (no pun intended)? The first point I’d like to make is that dying is, in important respects, individual. If someone you love is dying, try not to force your ideas on them, no matter how much you fear to lose them or feel that, in their circumstances, you would want such and such. Let them be themselves. That is actually a hard thing to ask of anyone, especially when the heart is breaking and there is apparently only a yawning void ahead.

When Mary stood at the foot of the cross, every fibre of her being must have protested at her Son’s death. She would have done anything — anything at all — to spare him that; but she loved him too well to say or do anything that would have made the process of dying any harder than it was. She stood there, silent but with every nerve alert, accompanying him as best she could but not making any demands. When she was entrusted to the Beloved Disciple and he to her, she said nothing. That silence, that acceptance, was the silence of one who embraces the will of God because it is God’s will, the silence of one who is truly loving.

My second point is more theological. There are times when we may doubt whether we are truly loving, despite all our protestations. Yet we know that we are because we have been incorporated into Christ, and it is his love that is active in us. At Easter we shall sing of being buried with Christ in baptism (cf Romans 6.4) and if that means what I believe it does, not only our death but our dying is, too. What we are tempted to think of as lonely and individual is suddenly illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. We do not die alone. We die in union with Christ Jesus, and that changes everything.

*No pressure was put on me. The decision was my own. I have survived much longer than anyone thought I would, thanks to the excellent treatment I have received over the years.

P.S. Please do not send sympathy just yet. As I said, I hope to have a while longer but do not wish to spend my time thanking everyone for their condolences. Be pragmatic!

Audio version

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Dying a Good Death

There seems to have been a lot of interest recently in dying well. I notice, for example, that the question of ‘terminal care’ has been addressed by both individuals and groups, and many suggestions have been made about how to make the process of dying easier both for the one who is dying and those close to them. I agree with many of their suggestions, but, oh, how much simpler the whole idea of a good death is if one happens to be Catholic! My own hope is that I will go to my death peacefully, shriven of my sins, anointed with oil, Communicated, surrounded by prayer; but if I die in my sleep, or alone and in agony, it can still be a good death. What matters is that one’s own death is united with the death of Christ our Saviour. I say this from a position of faith, aware that to many — even to many good Christians — it may not make much sense; so it is important to stress that it is not a ‘feeling faith’ I am talking about, but a willed faith. St Thérèse of Lisieux experienced great darkness and spiritual isolation before she died, but she died a good and holy death.

Most of the death-beds I’ve attended have shown me someone dying as they lived: with grace and humour for the most part, but sometimes with fear and confusion. It can be very painful for the onlooker, but one needs to remember that the act of dying is as important as the act of being born. It is a mystery, with depths we cannot yet fathom. Much must be taken on trust; but whenever, wherever and however we die, we die as part of the Church, as a member of the Body of Christ. We are never completely alone, never completely helpless. It is no accident that the commonest prayer to Our Lady, the ‘Hail Mary,’ contains the petition, ‘pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.’ It is a good prayer to pray for the dying, for one day we shall be among their number.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail