Graceful Dying: The Gift of Allowing Others to Care for You

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.

Cheryl Dickow

By

Cheryl Dickow is a Catholic wife, mother, author and speaker. Cheryl’s newest book is Wrapped Up: God’s Ten Gifts for Womenwhich is co-authored with Teresa Tomeo and is published by Servant (a division of Franciscan Media); there is also a companion journal that accompanies the book and an audio version intended for women’s studies or for individual reflection. Cheryl’s titles also include the woman’s inspirational fiction book Elizabeth: A Holy Land Pilgrimage. Elizabeth is available in paperback or Kindle format. Her company is Bezalel Books where her goal is to publish great Catholic books for families and classrooms that entertain while uplifting the Catholic faith and is located at www.BezalelBooks.com. To invite Cheryl to speak at your event, write her at Cheryl@BezalelBooks.com.

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  • pfmacarthur

    Beautiful article. Thank you for sharing.

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  • http://schefter.org PrairieHawk

    To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, a noble death (a truly noble death, that is, and not what the culture would promote) is something even a pauper can afford. It is a person’s final gift to God and to his or her loved ones.

    It is very, very hard to be completely reliant on other people. It takes us down a few notches. To be able to make a gift of self in the face of one’s dependence, takes a heart that sees beyond this world and into the next. Bless Cheryl and her family during this difficult time.

  • bambushka

    I could have written this about my mother. This past winter she became deathly ill. Having 8 children, the siblings all decided to take turns spending a week or so individually with her. These times, taking care of her hygiene, meals, comfort and medication was Sacrament. I spent the first week with her after she left the nursing home, and it was like waiting on a newborn; no sleep, constant vigil, and messy situations. I would not have missed out on my time with her for anything. She has, praise God, recovered and has had another birthday this week. She has witnessed a son come back into the fold at Easter, and she wonders if this is why God still has her here in her earthly life. Apparently, her prayers are still needed by those she loves.

    Blessed in the eyes of the Lord are the deaths of His saints. But blessed indeed, is being with the saint as they prepare to die.

  • http://rosaryworkout.com Peggy Bowes

    This article should be mailed to those in public office who vote to end lives through human, rather than divine, intervention. Pray for a renewal of a Culture of Life, from birth to natural death, in our great nation.

  • patti

    Thanks for sharing such a beautiful account of your sister-in-laws passage from this life to the next. A friend once pointed out to me (after her brother-in-law died from a long illness) that our sufferings our not just to help us grow closer to God, but they are an avenue for others to grow in holiness through charity. We are all connected in one body of Christ. Our lives our intertwined.

  • jeffeschbach

    Thank you so much for this article. So often our American culture values independence and self-reliance above all else… this was a beautiful reminder that God calls us not only to serve others, but to rely upon others too.

  • sophieo

    A recent article from Canadian Catholic News, in the Western Catholic Reporter, about this experience may be of interest: “Euthanasia would rob the dying of rich moments near death”
    http://www.wcr.ab.ca/news/2010/0405/euthanasia040510.shtml

  • deacontom

    Thank you for a beautiful article. May God grant eternal rest to Yvonne and to all the faithful departed, Amen.

    Just a moment of additional faith support offered…. when someone becomes ill, we often think of the Anointing of the Sick and rightly so. But in between the time/s that the person takes ill and when anointing is offered – please be aware that there is a Rite for the Blessing of the Sick — a priest or deacon or even a lay minister can lead this. It’s complete with readings from Scripture, special intercessions, a prayer of blessing and laying-on-of hands. This form of prayer can be uplifting to the one suffering and to those around him/her. I also like the Litany of Divine Mercy as a prayer that any assembled can say around the sick person. Blessings. deacon tom

  • mallys

    For many years I have said that we need the sick, handicapped, poor and marginalized more than they need us. They keep us human.

  • http://youtube.com/Nicecatholicgirl janedoe

    Thank you, Cheryl. I’m sorry for your family’s loss.

  • Cheryl Dickow

    My husband and I want to thank everyone who was kind enough to post comments of condolences as well as to those who took the time to share their own stories. And for anyone who read this and offered a silent prayer, we thank you as well. Ultimately it is clear that we all know, in times like this, the beauty and truth of our faith and I thank every Catholic Exchange reader who fights the good fight of our faith.

  • ymader

    I have witnessed a number of elderly in my husband’s family die in recent years in nursing homes. I always shuddered at the lack of dignity they were shown and have hoped that my death would be an earlier one so I wouldn’t have to go through something of that nature. After having read your beautiful article I now see what a total self-giving this can be – even to strangers, and more of a sacrifice, which if made in union with Christ’s own death could bring the person dying immeasurable graces. Thank you for opening my eyes to yet another opportunity God gives us in death to grow even closer to Him. Yvonne, by her self-less love, has witnessed to God’s perfect mercy – may she rest in His sweet arms eternally.

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