Preparing for the Grace of a Good Death
Once, when called to anoint an elderly parishioner, I greeted her and asked if she was ready to receive the sacrament. She responded with a faint but real smile, “Yes, Father, but you will have to help my children understand that I am dying. God is calling me home.”
She was ready, as many seniors come to be, but younger people sometimes avoid thinking about mortality, much less talking about it with loved ones whom they do not want to lose. This is not surprising. As Blessed Pope John Paul II noted, “death presents a certain dark side which cannot but bring sadness and fear. How could it be otherwise? Man has been made for life” (Letter to the Elderly, 14).
Even so, as we hear on Ash Wednesday, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” One day, our bodies will fail. Death comes for us all, at least biologically, and it could come at any moment, whether after a lengthy illness or a sudden event. The ending of life on this earth, however, while it may cause some understandable apprehension, need not be cause for despair.
The Lord “is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20:38). Life in this world is preliminary to what lies ahead. A few years ago, I presided at the funeral Mass of former White House spokesman Tony Snow and was reminded that he had given this powerful witness after he learned he had cancer, “Remember that we were born not into death, but into life – and that the journey continues after we have finished our days on this earth.”
Given that death might come at any time, it is prudent to prepare with things like estate planning, advance burial arrangements, and a healthcare power of attorney. Even more importantly, it is wise to make preparations spiritually and emotionally for that next stage of our journey, and without delay, both for ourselves and our loved ones. We do this, we prepare for a “good death” as Saint Paul did, by continuing to run the race, competing well with a charitable and virtuous life, and keeping the faith, maintaining our hope and love in the Risen Lord until the appointed time of our departure is at hand (cf. 2 Timothy 4:6-7). One way to express this same idea is found in the spiritual adage: “The best preparation for a good death is a good life.”
As we contemplate the horizon of our days, we do not have to face it alone. Today and every day is a good time to tell our family members we love them. Now is the time to reconcile with those from whom we have become estranged rather than express regret at their funeral.
Faith helps us to see a horizon beyond this world. Together with family and friends, if we let him, Jesus will comfort and shepherd us through the valley of the shadow of fear, suffering and death, and by his love for us, he makes all things new.
Our bodies will give out, but love endures and triumphs even over death. Such love grows through prayer and the sacraments such as Penance and Holy Communion, called the medicine of immortality. This is always a good practice. But when we know that death is close for ourselves or another, this is especially a time for prayer. One should call a priest to administer the sacrament of the anointing of the sick and Viaticum, the Eucharistic food for the final passage to the Father’s house.
“At the hour of my death, call me and bid me come to you” (Anima Christi). That we and our loved ones will inevitably take our last breath does not mean that we are made for death. Faith opens us to a “hope that does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5). As Tony Snow said, “even though God doesn’t promise us tomorrow, he does promise us eternity.” Made in the image and likeness of the eternal God who is Love, we are made for a life – and a love – that is everlasting.
This is the first in a series. Also, the Archdiocese of Washington Department of Life Issues has compiled some helpful resources to aid you in your reflection on end-of-life issues.