Oh! Oh! Here I Go!
Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
Unsettling as it is, the number one cause of death for human beings is conception. Once the creation of life takes place, the end of that life is assured. Our mortal existence may be 100 minutes or 100 years, but our end will come. Throughout history, some notable individual's last words have been recorded: Elizabeth Barrett Browning uttered, "Beautiful!" and George Washington spoke, "Tis well," Saint Francis of Assisi proclaimed, "Welcome, Sister Death!" and then the rather ominous offering of boxer Buddy Baer, "Oh! Oh! Here I go!"
In my years as a hospital chaplain, I visit the dying every day and I pray that I may be adequate in my ministry to them. They are all different individuals with different needs. Am I intelligent enough, intuitive enough… holy enough to recognize what they require from me? Of course, the conferring of sacraments is primary and they prepare the soul for the great event of passing from this life, but are there more expressions, on a totally human level, that I and they need to share?
For decades, the writings of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross have provided insights into the various stages one may experience, along with their loved ones, in confronting the reality of death and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages, necessarily, neither are sequential nor absolute within the process of dying, but common. The dying person must face the realities of what is happening and come to terms with it according to their religious faith or lack of it. I do not think that the presence of fear is an accurate indicator of the lack of a strong faith in God but rather it is a reflection of leaving all the people and places that have provided a sense of love, comfort, and security for the unknown, the mysterious, the new, and the eternal journey. Everything that a person knows becomes nothing and what he believes becomes everything. The person has never had to operate in that environment before. No wonder that even with a strong and confident faith, some fear may be present.
Looking at dying from the perspective of a spouse, family member, friend, or other caregiver, the questions and confusion also may be present and acute. How do I speak to the dying? How do I act in their presence? How do I react to their words to me? What am I supposed to do? These questions and many more concerns rise within the mind and heart of a one in the presence of a dying person. An approach to an answer is provided in the book, Final Gifts by Maggie Callahan and Patricia Kelley. The subtitle, Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, and Communications of the Dying speak to the issues involved in relating to the dying person. I would like to share with you a thumbnail sketch of the tips expressed in the book respecting the attitude of the caring person to the dying person. I quote from the book:
- Pay attention to everything a dying person says.
- Remember that there may be important messages in any communication, however vague or garbled.
- Watch for key signs: a glassy-eyed look; the appearance of staring through you; distractedness or secretiveness; seemingly inappropriate smiles and gestures; such as pointing, reaching toward someone or something unseen, or waving when no one is there; efforts to pick at the covers or get out of bed for no apparent reason; agitation or distress at your inability to comprehend something the dying person has tried to say.
- Respond to anything you don't understand with gentle inquires.
- Pose questions in open-ended, encouraging terms.
- Accept and validate what the dying person tells you.
- Don't argue or challenge.
- Remember that a dying person may employ images from life experiences like work or hobbies.
- Be honest about having trouble understanding.
- Don't push. Let the dying control the breadth and depth of the conversation – they may not be able to put their experiences into words; insisting on more talk may frustrate or overwhelm them.
- Avoid instilling a sense of failure in the dying person. [Appreciate their effort to communicate.]
- If you don't know what to say, don't say anything.
- Remember, that sometimes the dying picks an unlikely confidant. Dying people often try to communicate important information to someone who makes them feel safe – who won't get upset or be taken aback by such confidences.
If we are to live fully, we must be able to die in the hope of the Resurrection. Evangelizing your faith by living it – and dying in it – may give to the living the prescription for their dying with hope and joy. Do we wonder what our final words might be? I pray that the final tribute to our Easter faith may echo that of the Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins whose parting words were "I am so happy! I am so happy!" From the cross, Our Lord spoke the most appropriate and comforting words of all, "Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit." After all isn't that the ultimate wish of us all?