For November – the month of the dead — a friar in Boston with many years’ experience working with the terminally ill and with their loved ones describes ways to confront the mystery of death.
In his book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker states that the consciousness of death is the primary repression of people, not sexuality as once taught by Freud. If this is true, it leads one to ask: why is that the two things about which people are most reluctant to speak about are how we come into the world [human sexuality] and how we leave the world [human death]? Certainly, we are drawing near to questions that ultimately deal with mystery and the ways in which we confront or avoid ‘mystery’ in our lives.
This reflection pertains to my ongoing journey with the mystery of death and how it has progressively led me to “choose life” even in the face of death. For more than 40 years as a licensed funeral director and embalmer, I worked with hundreds of individuals during times when they were experiencing numbness and confusion, times which called for guidance as to what to do next. For it is often at the time of death that people find themselves most vulnerable because of the degree of pain and despair they are experiencing. Interestingly enough, my career as a funeral director and my work with bereaved families led to pursue a vocation as an ordained Franciscan minister in the Roman Catholic Church. Over the years, and still to this day, I have continued to work with and minister to the terminally ill as well as bereaved and grieving people as they confront the mystery of death.
Traditions and Transformations
Our American culture has succeeded in transforming the reality of death into a foreign and alienating experience. A number of logical reasons can be advanced to account for the death-denying society we live in. With the many advances in medical science, people are living increasingly longer. In particular, childhood diseases that once claimed the lives of many children have been conquered by medical progress.
There has been a change in family patterns due to greater mobility, and this has contributed to the breakdown of the extended family and has shifted the focus to the nuclear family. American society continues to be a ‘youth-glorifying’ society which exalts the young, the beautiful and the healthy. We have even gone so far as to uproot the elderly and the sick from our immediate environment, preferring instead to isolate them in specific areas and communities that specialize in life with the elderly, the sick and the retired. Essentially, society has banished this segment of society from the mainstream of life.
As recently as the years during which my grandparents lived, babies were often born in the family dwelling and people were waked in the family house when they died. Times have changed; babies are born in hospitals and, for the most part, the dead are waked in funeral homes.
We have removed both birth and death from the immediacy of our lives and have relinquished the responsibilities associated with these mysteries to professions, many of whom we never even knew before those events. We have even retreated so far as to couch the language we use when we speak about death and death-related issues. Hospitals regularly us the term expired when speaking about someone who has died. My experience has convinced me that library cards and drivers’ licenses expire; people die.
Years ago, the front room or parlor in a house was used for special events, i.e., baptisms, weddings, and wakes. Because this particular room was used for wakes and thus represented ‘death’, we have exorcised even the memory of the former custom, changing the name of this room ‘parlor’ to ‘living room’ in order to reinforce the fact that individuals live there and that death has no place in our homes. We have dismissed a dimension of life, which is quite natural, and have converted it into something unnatural and something to be avoided at all costs. However, death has assumed a perverse fascination for many people, precisely because of their efforts to deny and repress anything to do with death. Every night on the evening news, we are drenched with descriptions of war, violence, and murder. Yet, these experiences are often removed and distant from our own personal life. The societal repression of the inevitability of human death has resulted in the popularity of horror movies and books that once again reveal a perverse fascination with violent death and gore.
My experience as a pastoral caregiver working with the terminally ill in hospices and hospitals has forced me to consider personally what it must be like for someone who is facing the end of one’s life. Pastoral caregivers are often asked to understand and respond to the dying person and his/her family. Yet, to arrive at the point of understanding what another person may be feeling and experiencing requires that we first understand comparable conflicts, fears, and feelings within ourselves, since most of us partake to some degree in similar universal feelings, reactions and responses.
We all know that death is inevitable and universal. Yet, at the same time, it is experienced as ultimately and intimately personal. The ability to respond to the fears and confusion of a dying person will most often involve a prior attending to our own fears and confusion with regard to the mystery of death. If we are comfortably in touch with the meaning of life, we may provide a sensitive, empathetic response to the dying person in his/her experience. Perhaps an exploration of some of the fears commonly experienced by a dying person may assist the pastoral caregiver to assess how a person is facing life and death.
Fear of the unknown is one of the many concerns which may surface as a person confronts hi/her limited life expectancy. Questions that may arise from this fear of the unknown may be: What about the hereafter? Is there really something more than this earthly life? What actually happens to my body after death? What is going to happen to my family and friends?
The fear of loneliness is significant to a dying person because there is often a process of mutual withdrawal occurring between the dying person and those close to the individual. It is certainly easy enough to understand that people generally try to avoid a person who may, in fact, remind them of their own mortality, yet this only adds to the sense of estrangement between the dying person and others. Because society has excised death from the mainstream of life, loneliness becomes accentuated in the life of the dying person, especially when this is coupled with a necessary withdrawal from employment and/or social activities.
Another fear is that of sorrow and the natural avoidance that occurs in situations of grief and sorrow. Often, a dying person must contend with many losses, related to job, social activities, independence, and the future. With each loss, there is an accompanying experience of grief. Once a person is faced with dying, he/she must also cope with the reality of losing one’s family and friends. During the period of dying, the person is brought face-to-face with the immediacy of such loss and must, in some manner, negotiate the grief of separation before death.
There is also the fear of loss of body, for our physical self is a vital part of our self-concept. If external disfigurement results from a terminal illness or a horrific accident, then the dying person may feel ashamed of his or her physical being and may actually reject their body. Their anticipatory fear is that family may also despise their body, resulting in potential rejection of the person and possible alienation.
Another fear is the loss of self-control. This is one of the most significant concerns related to the process of dying, heightened by the heavy emphasis placed in our society on independence, self-determination, and rationality. With a grim diagnosis and a diminished ability to care for themselves, many people feel that they have lost most of their identity and begin to question their usefulness and personal sense of integrity.
Most people have a great fear of suffering and pain which is altogether normal. They are less afraid of dying than they are of suffering from a lengthy and debilitating illness, one that produces great pain. Being pain-free and suffering-free is the universal wish of people facing death. It is impossible for them to understand why their death must be so painful and tortuous.
A fear of dying with unfinished business is also a dominant theme. Numerous individuals with whom I have spoken with have expressed intense fear that many of the loose ends in their lives, mainly relationships and financial affairs, would never be resolved or completed before their death.
There are two important words that should never be overlooked in dealing with someone who is dying: they are love and forgiveness. These two words have frequently been the key to someone dying peacefully and with a genuine feeling of wholeness in their life. The hospital bedside has often been the setting for meaningful reconciliations between patients and their families. I have frequently seen dying people literally ‘hang on’ to life in order be assured that their families and loved ones were taken care of, or to have the opportunity of knowing that they are forgiven for some unresolved hurts, or to communicate how much they loved the significant people in their lives. To be at peace, to know that life’s tasks are in order, to know that one’s life has made a difference in and through the power of love and forgiveness, is to speak of the ideal setting for the dying person and the family. Ideal…yes; impossible…no!
Exploring some of the fears that are often encountered by a dying person can be of propaedeutic value to help us understand that the dying of others inevitably triggers resonances within us concerning our own dying and death.
Recent studies have indicated that death anxiety does not actually pertain to physical death but rather to the basic, universal feelings of helplessness and abandonment. Certainly, fear of the unknown also involves the fear of one’s own termination and identity. It is widely understood that those who work with the terminally ill are constantly faced with questions that pertain to the unknown, questions that seem to defy answers, questions that undoubtedly lead us into a mystery. The mystery of death which confronts us, and the different fears associated with death and the dying process, present the opportunity to gain a richer insight into our lives.
Deepening Appreciation for Life
In one way, I see death as standing before us like a mirror. By consciously looking into it, we are enabling and empowered to see life and those people and events that give our life meaning. We re-assess and re-prioritize what has had the greatest effect and influence on our lives, even as we nurture a deeper appreciation, not only for what life means to us but also of the fragile nature of human life.
Some of my insights regarding the shortness and fragility of life emerged in the years when I was actively engaged as a funeral director. Day after day, I encountered the mystery of life and death as I was called to assist families in the act of memorializing and spiritualizing the life of someone close to them. Over the years, I have become increasingly convinced of the importance of conducting a funeral for someone we cared about and loved and are now facing this devastating loss. It is important to note that if a funeral is defined as an organized, purposeful, time-limited, group response to death”, then the keywords in this definition are ‘group response’. Funerals are exclusively for the living, not for the dead. Of course, the funeral provides for the final disposition of the human remains with varying rites and ceremonies, yet it is essentially designed to meet the needs of the survivors.
I believe that in most situations the viewing of a deceased loved one dramatically helps the survivors to come to grips with the fact that someone close and important to them has died. The funeral also assists those who are not actually family, but who have experienced fond and special moments with the deceased, to begin to share their loss with the family and others. The funeral serves as a group-centered support system and ‘permission giver,’ which allows people to express sympathy and loss to find a setting and/or time to express sorrow in a climate of mourning. Without an actual funeral, our society today is generally at a loss to find and setting to express true sorrow and grief.
Most Profound Sorrow
When we speak about grief, we are speaking about loss and, in particular, about the loss of a loved one which is the most profound of all sorrows. Grief is the intense emotion that overwhelms one’s life when a person’s relational security system is fragmented by an acute loss. It is a deeply-felt experience that eludes an adequate description. Therefore, any clinical description of grief, however comprehensive, always falls short of the intensely felt experience. Grief is always more than sorrow. It is the emotional response to loss which is often manifested by a great deal of uncertainty, confusion, sadness, apprehension and fear that life will never be complete or enjoyable again. Grief usually reflects our loss, and not exclusively the loss of the loved one since it is our life that is diminished and it is our life that we feel fully deprived.
There are other emotional responses that can occur at the time of the death of a loved one: anger, which can arise out of the frustration that nothing could have possibly been done to prevent the death. Disbelief and guilt are also powerful dimensions of anger that can well up at the loss of control over this devastating experience. Many people in acute grief experience physical distress such as nausea, tightness in the chest, and difficulty in breathing…often indications of shock and disbelief.
Fear is also a powerful emotion that sounds the anxiety alarm. Questions arise as to the future without the deceased, activities involved with the deceased and whether life is worth living after a loved one dies. This is often due to the fact that the relational security system has been shattered, and life seems too much to bear. These questions surrounding fear essentially address the future and avoid the present feelings of pain arising from the severe loss of the deceased.
Grieving requires patience – patience with oneself and with the timing of this natural process. It also demands the courage to acknowledge and to experience feelings of pain, loss, and loneliness and to persevere rather than to despair during this difficult time. In my own times of suffering and pain, I have often discovered that hope is born precisely in the midst of despair. My hope is that grieving will foster healing amidst the fragmentation of loss, and rekindle the ability to enjoy this life again, so that the bereaved might joyfully anticipate the day when the loved one is once again met face-to-face in that Kingdom where there will be no more suffering, no more tears and no more pain.
Until that time, life continues to invite us to rediscover purpose and meaning in the face of death – never alone, but with others and with the promise of hope.
A song from “The Rose” made popular a number of years ago still rings true as it tenderly expresses the pain of the grieving process and the future hope that overshadows the darkness of death:
“When the night has been too lonely
and road has been too long
that you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong,
just remember in the winter far beneath the bitter snows,
lies the seed that with the sun’s love,
in the spring becomes the rose.
— Joe Quinn is the director of the grief and LGBTQ ministries at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston’s Downtown Crossing neighborhood.
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic — a holiday, current event, holy day, or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional reflections by friars can be found in the Spiritual Resources page of HNP.org.
- “Remembering the Departed” by Jim Vacco – Oct. 31, 2016, HNP Today
- “Forever Loved: Grief Ministries Offer Hope for Advent, Christmas” – Dec. 12, 2014, HNP Today
- “A Reflection on All Souls Day” — Nov. 11, 2009, HNP Today