Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lessons from Death: A Palm Sunday Reflection

Thinking about this week's entry, I had no idea where to start. The readings this week really don't leave much to talk about. Facing Jesus' pending death (liturgically speaking), I have no idea what to say. For several years I worked with the elderly in nursing homes. Every day, I was faced with the prospect of one of my residents' dying. So, you could say, I know quite a bit about death. In light of Jesus' crucifixion, I would like to share two of those death stories with you.

Illustration from Ars Moriendi.
One of the earliest deaths I encountered was of a fairly young man. He was in his 50s, maybe? He was suffering from a lifetime of smoking and being extremely obese. His family blamed him for his health problems. They simply dropped him off in the nursing home and didn't come to see him again until after he was dead.

He was a fascinating person. I always wished I had talked to him about his life story. He had experienced life on both sides of care-giving. He worked caring for the severely handicapped and then he ended his life being cared for at the nursing home. I wonder what insights he would have had. He and I were the only liberals at the nursing home and this was shortly before Obama was elected the first time. We'd talk about politics all the time, grateful to have someone in this small town who agreed with us. He died only a couple days before the election and I made sure I voted in honor of him (and I've regretted my vote ever since, but that's another post for another time.)

He is the only resident I've ever had who I'm genuinely concerned about. He died very, very angry at everyone and everything. I could imagine him getting to the pearly gates and saying, "F-you, God! You treated me so horribly during life, I don't want to have anything to do with you in death! Where were you when my family and friends deserted me? Why did you let me fall apart and die before the age of 60?" I pray for his soul anytime that he comes to my mind.

I've seen crowds at the nursing home that would put the crowd at JPII's funeral to shame. 
But, now that I've shared an ugly death, let me share a better one. At another home I worked at, I had a resident that I knew for a whopping 3 hours. I came on to my shift and as the day-shift person walked me through my assignment, she pointed out a new resident to me. She was in her 70's but she didn't look past 40. She was a beautiful woman with bright eyes and flawless chocolate brown skin. The only interactions I had with her was her bath and her postmortem care.

Her room was full of family the whole afternoon. We didn't expect her to die, it's as if her family knew something we didn't. It came as a complete surprise when the nurse came and got me to prepare her for the funeral home. It wasn't even quite dinner time yet. The funeral home wasn't able to take her right away, though. It seemed as if half of St. Louis came to pay their respects. Family and friends were lined up down the hall. Small children were running around and playing all over my wing of the building. The other residents enjoyed seeing so many cute little kids. I found out later that while this woman never had kids, she had dozens of nieces and nephews and their children who she was very close to. Regardless of the inconvenience of working around these people for the rest of my shift, I was happy to see so many. It was the first and the last time I ever saw such a crowd while I worked in St. Louis. At other homes I worked at, this was the normal occurrence.

I don't know what it says about me that I associate "surrounded by people" with "a happy death." That'll have to be explored later. For right now, I have a few closing thoughts:

  • Don't get me wrong. There is no such thing as a pretty death and don't let any pro-euthanasia activist tell you otherwise. Death is the great equalizer. It doesn't matter if you're homeless, you're rich, you're the President of the United States or you're the Pope. Everyone dies and in the very end, it all happens in much the same way. I'll spare you the grizzly details, but it's enough to know that it sucks and it sucks for everyone.
  • What matters is how we live. St. Benedict often advised his followers to keep death always on their mind. I think this is very good advice. I think the world would be a better place if we all thought about death a little more. Not to be morbid, but death puts everything in life in perspective. All those petty little things that we occupy our time with, will they matter in the end? If it won't matter in the end, don't worry about it! We will all be spending a lot more time dead than we will be spending alive.
  • We spend a lot of time, energy, and money running from old age and death. It is a race we will all eventually lose. Old age is not ugly. It is not something to run from. Even if we lose our abilities and wind up in a home, I can tell you right now that my residents have all changed my life for the better. I think we should have mandatory CNA service. Like young Israelis are required to work in the military for a couple years, I think we all should be required to be a CNA for a couple years. That way we'll have plenty of people to help the elderly. I know my work with the elderly changed me profoundly, I think everyone would benefit from the humbling task of helping another person with their daily activities.  

St. Benedict, pray for us!

Not 100% appropriate but it is one of my favorite songs of all time and I couldn't get it out of my head while writing this: "Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult

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