“Caring for the dying means helping the dying discover that, in their increasing weakness, God’s strength becomes visible.”— Henri Nouwen (Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring), p. 87.
One of the most common clichés I hear among those in the pro-life movement is, “What if the child being aborted finds a cure for cancer?” This is a valid question, but it’s incomplete. The assumption encompasses our societal view that discovering something new – a cure, for example – supersedes care.
What that means is that those of us in Western culture generally do not value dependence, infirmity, disability, weakness – in a word, suffering. Instead, we strive for autonomy, optimal physical fitness, and inner strength. Again, this is not bad to care for our bodies and minds well. In fact, it is honoring the Holy Spirit who dwells within us. But the point I am trying to make is that worldly success is not akin to God’s way.
God’s way is through the path of suffering.
The dying know this well. Their willingness to shed, bit by bit, their pretenses, their facades, and their independence is not easy. We are led to believe that finding a cure is more valuable than accompanying the one who is passing from this world to the next. To care for others is to love them in the midst of their suffering and to, in fact, reflect to them the beauty and power of their weakness so that they may die well and in peace.
Henri Nouwen wrote on how we can assist others who are dying to understand that we care for them and are not trying to fix their condition or solve their problems. The following reflections are guideposts for all of us to understand how we can move from a mentality of cure to journeying with another in love and self-gift.
“Caring for others is…helping them to overcome that enormous temptation of self-rejection.”— Nouwen, p. 57
First, it’s important to acknowledge the human need to be self-sufficient. Death often forces a person to slow down, when s/he has been active and busy living life without the need for help or assistance. As we age, our bodies slow down. We can’t walk as quickly. We begin to hurt from arthritis or other inflammatory conditions. Our vision fades. Our hearing becomes muffled. Our depth perception and reaction time when driving may impede our ability to safely transport ourselves.
If death does not come for us quickly, we continue to fade away until we reach a point where the car keys are taken away and someone else takes us to the doctor’s appointment. An adult child may check in daily to help with daily chores, such as cooking or cleaning. Even the humiliation of having another bathe and help feed us is a real possibility.
In such moments, the underlying darkness is that of self-rejection, because we (erroneously) believe we were made for activity and productivity rather than passive acceptance and surrender. Yet that is the way of God in the form of Jesus – to walk the road to Calvary and permit Himself to be subjected to whatever others might to do Him.
“To help each other die well is to help each other claim the fruitfulness in our weakness.”
As Christians, part of the work of caring for the infirm, disabled, and dying involves sharing with the person how their lives are still worthwhile and ways in which they can still derive meaning from their dependence on others. It is a false notion that we become “burdens” to those who care for us when we age or become ill, but the reality is that we live on long after our death – in the form of our progeny, by way of the gifts and talents we’ve left behind, and even in the process of how we pass from earth to the afterlife.
Good care for the dying means we walk together in the truth that our weakness transforms us and others, bearing fruit that remains.
“The resurrection does not solve our problems about dying and death. It is not the happy ending to our life’s struggle, nor is it the big surprise that God has kept in store for us.”
Another common misunderstanding in our modern society is that being a Christian translates into this solar spirituality of handling suffering and bearing our crosses cheerfully and gratefully. “Just focus on the resurrection,” we’re told. Or maybe, “Try to be grateful. Find joy in every day.” These are true, but they ring hollow as empty platitudes for a person who is in the throes of intense pain and internal darkness.
The reminder that the resurrection, while remaining our steadfast hope, does not neatly explain or resolve the mystery surrounding dying and death. We can’t assume the fallacy that “Jesus is the answer” when, in fact, we must move through the passage of darkness, purgation, and purification. Dying is a complex process, one we all must face. And to do so with courage means that we acknowledge the truth of our pain, our anger, our depression, our fears and allow that to become the means by which we surrender the ugliness and suffering into the mystery of God.