Life and Death: A Reflection on the Need to Comfort The Dying

Life and Death: A Reflection on the Need to Comfort The Dying June 20, 2019
W. Bulach: Bernkastel-Kues, Bridge over the Moselle and hospice St. Nicolaus /Wikimedia Commons

But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1Jn. 3:17 RSV).

One of the many great deeds of the 15th century theologian, Nicholas of Cusa, was the establishment of a hospice in Kues:

Cusanas (1401 – 1464) used his considerable benefices, which he had accumulated over a successful ecclesiastical career, to establish this hospice as home for thirty-three poor men, thirty-three being the number of years Christ supposedly spent on earth. And indeed, this hospice still serves its original purpose as it now provides for elderly men and women. Even now Cusanas, the son of a local boatman who became a cardinal of Rome, remains the hometown hero of Kues. [1]

Nicholas literally put his heart into the hospice: while most of his bodily remains were buried at St. Peter in Chains in Rome, his heart was sent to the hospice, where it was placed in the chapel. Likewise, he gave his library to the hospice, making sure that it would contain works which could lift up the spirits of those residing within its residence.  Nicholas understood that care needed to be given to the downtrodden, especially when they were sick and dying: they needed to be able to die with dignity and respect.

It is common for most of us not to be too concerned about death. Society, and the biomedical industry, often promotes a vitalism that makes us neglect, if not outright ignore, the end of life. What Paul Evdokimov saw in his day remains true now:

Forgetfulness of death is characteristic of our world. With great artistry everything is shaped by this, as if modern man could not bear the idea of it so brutally imposed, as if behind the statement that “all are mortal” there were hidden an unavowed and senseless thought, an obscure desire that there may be some exceptions, that this end did not immediately concern me. [2]

We do not like to think about death, let alone deal with it. When it comes our time to die, we are likely to be as unprepared for it as those who came before us. And, to make matters worse, we might not have the companionship or medical care which we need. As we have neglected those who die before us, letting them die hidden from the world, without any concern for their spiritual and physical needs being taken care of, we will likely find ourselves ignored by others when it is our time to die.

It does not have to be this way. It should not be this way. We must become more accepting of death, that our life will come to an end. As Kayla Stock explained, “An essential human task is not only the recognition of but hopefully the appreciation of the inherent limitedness of humanity.”[3] We are born into this world and eventually we will find our time upon it will come to an end. Just as we needed help and assistance from others in our infancy, it is likely that as we approach death (unless it is sudden and unpredictable), we will need other, similar assistance. It is nothing to be ashamed about: it is a part of the human experience. Trying to fend of death, trying to hide it away from society, only hurts the process of dying itself, and hinders our chance of having a good death, a death in which we are prepared mentally, physically, and spiritually for what is to come next.

We need to be able to find meaning in our death; for Christians, it comes to us when we truly appreciate and understand the meaning of the cross. We do not enter eternal beatitude without first coming to a temporal end. Death, spiritual death, which comes from sin, does not and should not give us the final meaning for death. Rather, we should see death has been transformed: spiritual death has been conquered by the death and resurrection of Christ. Now our death can be a time of our own emergence into eternity; instead of creating a tragic end to life, it can be the beginning of a greater form of existence. Bernard Häring, therefore, pointed out that in death, we now hand ourselves over to God, knowing our life itself is truly fulfilled:

As for death, it can have two meanings. We can have the death of Adam, which means the final frustration of the vanity of a self-seeking life; or we can make it the greatest manifestation of love, trust, and faith, and the most important act of all, as was the sacrificial death of Christ. All those who, following baptism, have made the love, sacrifice, and glory of the paschal mystery the norm of their lives can render into the hands of God their lives now fulfilled and consummated, as an expression and witness of the love for their fellow men and as the greatest possible praise of God.[4]

Once we understand death itself has been transformed by Christ, so that it no longer has to be feared, we can then recognize the good which is possible in death itself. Karl Rahner explained how this was portrayed in Scripture by telling us how we come to God through death:

Scripture describes the content of the blessed life of the dead in a thousand images: as rest and peace, as a banquet and as glory, as being at home in the Father’s house, as the kingdom of God’s eternal Lordship, as the community of all who have reached blessed fulfillment, as the inheritance of God’s glory, as a day which will never end, and as satisfaction without boredom. Throughout all of these words of scripture we always surmise one and the same thing: God is absolute mystery. And therefore the fulfillment and absolute closeness to God himself is an ineffable mystery which we must go to meet and which the dead who die in the Lord find, as the Apocalypse says. It is the mystery of ineffable happiness. It is no wonder, then, that our ears do not hear the pure silence of this happiness. [5]

What once was a curse for sin has become the means by which beatitude is to be attained. We do not need to fear it. Indeed, when the time is right, we might even be looking forward to seeing it as an end to the troubles of temporal existence. And if we approach death in this spirit, we can begin to understand how and why we can be with others as they near their own death. We can be with them, comforting them in spirit, helping them prepare for the great and final adventure of their lives. Companionship, instead of being ignored and left to fend for themselves, helps the dying; of course, if they are in deep pain, then other, medical help should be given, following the example of Christ who comforted those who were suffering. This is the spirit, this is the ideal, established in and with the hospice industry: to give medical help and ease physical suffering, while offering companionship to deal with their emotional and psychological needs: “The hospice idea has at its core the principle of allowing people to die with dignity. This takes place in an atmosphere of peace and autonomy, with as little pain as possible and, to the greatest degree possible, in the circle of one’s most beloved family and friends.”[6]

To give comfort to the dying is a corporeal work of mercy, whether it is medical care by physicians, or spiritual or emotional care by those who willingly share their lives with those who are dying. For Christians, it is a way for them to participate in the healing ministry of Christ. Even if there is no cure for death, there is, as Dan O’Brien points out, a restorative work going on, as caregivers, loved ones, friends, and helpers of those who are dying help bring peace to those dying:

Fourth, the healing ministry of Jesus is the work of restoration. By this, I mean to say that when we reach out to heal, to comfort and to care, even when there is no cure, we are restoring people to community — this is a constitutive feature of the reign of God. Not only are we restoring people to community, but we form community among ourselves by the very activity in which we participate. We are called to be are peacemakers. We are called to restore people to their relationship with God and to their relationship with their families, loved ones and communities. In a real sense, we are called to help restore them to themselves. Sickness and death separate people. But they also can bring people together if, through that suffering and death, they experience our caring hands, our competent treatment, our compassionate care, our tender voice, our attentive listening — and so experience the love and compassion of God.[7]

It is a ministry of love, fulfilling then, what Paul wrote to the Colossians:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Col. 3:12-14 RSV).

Of course, the hospice system is for everyone, no matter the background, no matter what faith or lack of faith someone might have. Visiting and helping the dying is not meant to be a time of proselytism, but of comfort and aid. Those who work with the drying must not impose themselves upon the dying, but rather, they must be there to give comfort and aid, to show respect and love for them. That is their duty, that is their calling. They are to do it the best they can, in the way they can, interacting with the dying in the way in which the dying (and their loved ones) approve. Spiritual reflection is possible, but it must be given in consideration to the dying person’s own beliefs and desires. The duty to love includes a duty to respect the dying person and their wishes; for some, that might include deep philosophical and spiritual reflection, but for others, it might be simply showing care and concern for them, helping them know they remain a dignified human worthy of being loved and respected by showing a willingness to listen to them and what they have to say. The point is for the Christians to recognize that in showing this love, they are following after Christ, being there for others, just as Christ was, caring for them without exception. That is the point. That is what is needed. That is what Nicholas of Cusa understood, which is why he divested himself into his hospice: his theological acumen, his wisdom, his great thoughts, while an invaluable witness in its own right, was not as close to his heart as actual care and concern for the poor. We, too, must think likewise if we truly want to be Christians in deed and not just in words. We must be able to transform our thinking of death, seeing the good which is possible in the time of death, allowing us to be with people as they are dying, as well as to allow people be with us when it is our time to die. We should not fear death, but rather, we should come prepared to it, accepting it as a major part of life itself.

[1] Joshua Hollman, The Religious Concordance: Nicholas of Cusa and Christian-Muslim Dialogue (Boston: Brill, 2017), 1.

[2] Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life. Trans. Sister Gertrude, S.P. Rev. Michael Plekon and Alexis Vinogradov (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 200.

[3] Kayla Stock, “Life or Death and Other False Dichotomies: A Theology of Hospice,” (College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, 2018),  25. ( ).

[4] Bernard Häring, Morality Is For Persons: The Ethics of Christian Personalism (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 1971). 103.

[5] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith. Trans. William V. Dych (New York: The Seabury Press, 1978). 441.

[6] Andreas Walker and Christof Breitsameter, “The Provision of Spiritual Care in Hospices: A Study in Four Hospices in North Rhine-Westphalia,” Journal of Religion and Health. 2017; 56(6): 2347.

[7] Dan O’Brien, “Palliative Care: The Biblical Roots” in Health Progress (Jan -Feb, 2014), 48.


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