Complicated questions and feelings when faced with death

Last year, not long before a friend asked me an anguished question, she sat in the front pew on Ash Wednesday and smiled as I sang.

May 08, 2014

By Maureen Pratt
Last year, not long before a friend asked me an anguished question, she sat in the front pew on Ash Wednesday and smiled as I sang.

Thin, pale, and slow-moving, her battle with cancer was taking its toll on her body and spirit. Yet she insisted on making it to Mass and never stopped praying. This was a woman who, through most of her 70 years, had been full of energy, faith, and determination.Now, however, she was suffering in the hospital. She was surrounded by family and visited by a steady stream of long-time friends. She had not yet told me that she was dying. But the cancer that had plagued her for several years had attacked yet again, and her doctors were not recommending more surgery to remove it due to her extremely weakened state.

Still, those closest to her were urging her to insist, to seek another opinion, and to endure additional and painful rounds of chemotherapy.

“I’m so tired,” she told me. “And everyone’s telling me something different.”

In anguish, she asked: “What should I do?”

With her medical prognosis grim, and her strength flagging, I think both of us knew then that she would soon be leaving this world. Her question to me was not so much a practical one (More chemo? A second opinion?) as it was spiritual. When you know the inevitable, how do you prepare for the final days of this life?

My heart already was heavy with the anticipation of another death. My father was, during this time, dying, too, in Florida. He also had a terminal illness and was in hospice care. Because of an injury from a car accident, I could not travel to be with him. I communicated as best I could via telephone, which was difficult because of his dementia.

I also had to think ahead, to final preparations; if death came before I could travel to be with him. If not, everything would have to be arranged long-distance. Trying to honour his wishes was difficult to discern because of his condition. I wondered if I should travel anyway, risking further injury?

My friend’s anguish-filled question echoed in my mind: “What should I do?”

In the midst of a crisis, and most especially when the crisis is one of impending death, it can be so easy to feel overwhelmed. Even those of us who have a vast support system and iron-strong faith can stumble under the weight of the questions coming at us rapidly and loudly.

Are we doing the right thing to refuse more treatment? Are we providing the right care and support for our loved one so that he or she can die with dignity and complete the full circle of the sacraments? Have we missed an opportunity to extend our days? Are we letting others down?

The days moved on. It was increasingly difficult to think clearly, to eat or sleep regularly. After a long, dark night, my friend decided she knew what to do. My father stopped eating. The shift from life to death was palpable and powerful.

No matter what was taking place, God’s presence was unquestionable, and worry unnecessary. I breathed, deeply. My friend, my father, myself – all of us were not alone or unloved. God, the Father was with us, the Lord, our Shepherd.

“Pray for peace,” I told my friend, I told myself.

“That’s the best thing anyone’s said to me,” she said quietly. “You have to promise me, you’ll sing at my funeral.”

I found the local parish pastor, who visited my father a few days before he died, anointing him at one of his remaining coherent moments. The morning of his death, the nurse held the phone up to my father’s ear, and I sang two soft verses of “Amazing Grace.” He raised his hand twice, as if to say, “All’s well.”

Then, I sang at my friend’s funeral.

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