Teaching Our Faith – Pastoral care for those facing death and their families

This series of teaching editorials explores death and dying and how the Church provides pastoral care for those facing death and for their families before and after they have died.

The word “death” frightens us. Everyone accepts death as inevitable while clinging to hope it comes to everyone else first, not me. We carry within us an illusion of fear and fantasy.

Death is a very intrusive reality. Caring for the dying is a challenge. It is a reality check. It exposes our hidden assumptions about the cycle of life and death. Death is a mystery we cannot avoid. Nor can we fully explain what it is and how one crosses into an unknown space. How can care be offered?

Let me quote Henri Nouwen from his final work entitled, “Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring:”

“Caring for others, is first of all, helping them to overcome the enormous temptation of self-rejection. Whether we are rich or poor, famous or unknown, disabled or fully abled,  we all share the fear of being left alone and abandoned, a fear that remains hidden under the surface of our self-composure.

“It is rooted much more deeply than in the possibility of not being liked or loved by people. Its deepest root lies in the possibility of not being loved at all, of not belonging to anything that lasts, of being swallowed up by a dark nothingness — yes, of being abandoned by God. … Dying and death always call forth, with renewed power, the fear that we are unloved and will, finally, be reduced to ashes. To care is to stand by a dying person and to be a living reminder that the person is indeed the beloved child of God.”

The wisdom I know about caring and accompanying the dying comes from listening, rather than speaking, observing rather than doing, and silence rather than talking. Let’s look at all three.

First, listen. Listening is a two-step process. It begins with you, the caregiver. This is the most difficult first step. It requires you to enter the hidden fear that Nouwen described, the fear of losing everything, everyone I love.

The cruel fact of death stirs within us this terror of ultimate loss. It is felt as one drowning in a wave of destruction with no hope of survival. It is a primitive fear embedded in humanity. Every culture seeks a purposeful meaning for the mystery of death. This attempt to assign meaning to a mystery creates within us a whirlpool of assumptions. Every person holds operative assumptions about death that unconsciously drive attempts to offer care.

You must be intentional and reflective about your life’s assumptions. Share your assumptions and fears with someone wise, a close friend or professional. In conversation, you will find clarity. You will uncover assumptions that may inhibit you from listening to a dying person. If you cannot free yourself from the potential bondage of your assumptions, it will severely impair your caregiving. 

The second step of listening is accompanying your loved one with a non-judgmental listening heart. You listen rather than object, you listen rather than argue, you listen with your heart, not just your ears. Your dying loved one is on a journey that is personal, unique and sacred. It is their experience not yours. It is spoken in bits and pieces. It is sometimes coherent, often disconnected. It is a language that sounds familiar but is often heard as an unknown dialect. Create within you a listening heart rather than an argument defending your unspoken assumptions about life and death.

Now, observe. With the usual burden of tasks directing all our actions, listening intently opens the sacred door of observation. To see God in all things, as St. Ignatius of Loyola urged, is the essence of the spiritual life. God, love permeates all of creation, even the darkest moments. God as love cannot separate from creation and all it contains.

Notice in your loved one’s facial expressions, a serenity one moment, pain at another. Notice those awkward body stretches, reaching out with arthritic hands to grasp what cannot be seen. Notice breaths long and slow, peaceful, then short gasping noise. Seek the presence of God by observing what is happening behind the surface and how love is at work in this journey toward the completion of life. 

Now silence. This is sacred holy ground. You are a witness to the work of God through you and others. Never forget that God desires union with all of us as your loved one goes first. In the end, God brings to completion all that God began that we might have life abundantly forever!

Reverend Paul A. Scaglione is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville. He established the Gennesaret Retreats for those who are chronically ill with life-threatening conditions.

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