The phrase “selfless love” is often associated with the ways in which a person gives of him or herself in union with another. Most particularly selfless love is at the center of marriage but is also found in close friendships and certainly in parenthood. It is about the ways a person gives of “self” to another — without reservation, without regret, without strings attached.
Most recently, it has become quite apparent to me that selfless love is also experienced when one person is willing to share his or her death with others.
My sister-in-law, Yvonne Dickow, was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer in late 2008. A longtime resident of California, Yvonne’s diagnosis forced her to return to her Michigan roots where family could care for her medical needs, which involved chemotherapy treatment, surgeries, countless emergency room visits, and numerous attempts to ease her discomfort and pain; and, ultimately hospice care in which peace became the goal and love became the only avenue upon which peace could arrive.
From the beginning the strategy was to fight the disease and the diagnosis to the bitter end. And “fight” is exactly what Yvonne did — and did it better than anyone could have imagined. But when it became clear that the battle was not to be won, the game plan shifted and the teachings of the Catholic Church on end-of-life issues took center stage, without anyone ever really noticing.
For instance, the secular world seems to truly embrace the idea that there is a “dignified” way to die and that being at the mercy and care of others for every need is not “noble.” After all, who among us wishes to rely on another for our personal hygiene or to help us with our normal bodily functions? There is no apparent or imagined dignity in becoming completely, totally, and utterly reliant on another human being. It is almost degrading — and it is certainly embarrassing, at least at the outset.
So when a person allows him or herself to become that “weak link” in the chain of life, he or she is actually becoming a conduit between heaven and earth. This person is saying, “This is incredibly difficult for me to rely on you, but I will trust that you have my best interests at heart and that you will not think ill of me.” In that way, the person in need of care is allowing the potential caregiver(s) to become mercy and love to another human being.
That is an incredible gift!
We may amass great wealth and thousand of friends but, in the end, we are going to be judged on how we cared for one another. It may be just one chance God provides or it may be a lifetime of chances. But our time in front of God, at our own death, will be a “life review,” of sorts, an opportunity to look back on how we responded to God’s call for action while we walked this earth.
How fortunate are we, then, when a person, in their end-of-life condition, allows us to act in ways in which we can best serve God — and ultimately our own eternal judgment?
The Catholic Church teaches that God gives life and God takes it away. It is meant to be on His timing and not of our own choosing. In the great wisdom of His design, He allows us to minister to one another in ways that can only be for our good — even when we think it is for the good of another. And when a person is in the end stages of life and opts to let God use those hours, days, or weeks they become anointed times for all involved.
For the past 18 months, I’ve watched as family and friends have ministered to Yvonne and can so clearly see how both Yvonne was blessed but also how each caregiver was blessed, as well.
The greatest act of selfless love is when one person chooses to share his or her own death with others. When one person is willing to count out the minutes at the hands of another, completely relying on the love and care that can be given but also becoming Love to the caregiver. Not in words or in deeds but in being an instrument.
As Yvonne succumbed to her cancer, I felt in awe of how brave it was that she allowed herself to share this most private experience with others. Her journey from fighting to peace became everyone’s journey. Everyone had a part and no matter how large or how small it was, Yvonne’s act of selfless love allowed everyone to act selflessly and thus be blessed. Had Yvonne opted for a quicker, less painful, more “noble” or “dignified” end to her life, all people involved would have lost out on opportunities to serve God by caring for Yvonne.
Christ’s love for each and every one of us was completely selfless. It is seemingly beyond measure and definitely something that is almost impossible to comprehend. As Catholic Christians, it is not often that we recognize our own opportunities to mirror that love but when we do, and when we respond, we become Christ-like.
We become His channel of love and peace.
Yvonne allowed so many to become love and peace and I am humbled and honored to have witnessed the immense love of her family and friends and to see the Truth of our Catholic Faith alive in so many people.