Whether we like it or not, we all have ideas and feelings connected to how we conceptualize death — just like taxes, it is one of life’s certainties.
My dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer when I was 24 years old, and that’s when I realized how unhealthy my relationship with death actually was. I’d never been close to someone going through the process of dying before, and I had a very vague and thoroughly sanitized idea of what it might be like. I thought maybe there would be hugs and tears, perhaps a ray of golden sunlight through the curtains — maybe even the faint hint of angels singing in the background.
It turned out that my family’s experience of death was nothing like it’s often portrayed in the movies. It’s been a process, but my own experience taught me that getting more comfortable with death is an important part of living well. That doesn’t have to make us morose or gloomy, though. In fact, there’s a lot to be said for normalizing a sense of our eventual death, and even beginning to prepare for it.
Death is real, and it’s not easy
The last few weeks were difficult for my dad. Pain overtook his body and even the strongest of drugs couldn’t make him comfortable. I longed for a moment of serenity by his bedside near the end — I was looking for a time when we could hold hands and look into each other’s eyes as we said goodbye — but that moment never came. He slept a lot but was plagued by terrible nightmares, and when he was awake, he was mostly in agony. Weeks before he actually died, the combination of cancer and the drugs took him far away from us; I was afraid to look into the eyes I loved so well because at times they didn’t seem like his eyes anymore.
That was the end of his struggle with cancer, but the beginning of the end was not at all how I expected, either — the initial diagnosis, of course, was devastating. Then, as time passed and uncertainty started to infiltrate every aspect of our lives, we’d alternate between moments of acceptance, joy, and hope; and moments of crushing depression and a bottomless aching sadness. It all felt totally surreal — even to the point of absurdity at times — and getting on with daily life after the diagnosis often felt oddly anticlimactic.
We lived with the knowledge that my father was dying for almost three years, so you might think I would have been prepared for it by the time he died. In reality, though, I felt so far from prepared. With our fixation on youth, strength, and beauty, our culture is not a great place to learn to get comfortable with the idea of death. We’re encouraged to take the easiest route, to skirt around the messier and more vulnerable parts of life, like suffering, pain, and the fact of death itself. We trick ourselves into thinking that we have control over our lives, and therefore, our deaths, too. We turn away from the carved skulls and images of death that are common sights in older churches; we shudder at these reminders of our own mortality and call them “morbid” or unnecessarily gloomy.
But maybe there’s another way.
Death reminds us to live well
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, is affectionately known as the “death nun” because so much of her work is focused on encouraging people to take up the spiritual practice of meditating on death. She told me that we don’t have to avoid or fear death: “Jesus has saved us from the despair of death. This is central to the Gospel message, and when we skip talk of death, we miss taking what Jesus did for us pers
onally. Reminders to meditate on death are reminders to meditate on the joy Jesus has brought to our lives. They also help us to live the time we have well and in preparation for heaven.”
I once visited an ancient burial site on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea. When we passed a cemetery, I noticed that the graves were built with a large flat surface area on the top, with grooves running around the edges. Early Christian families used to come and visit the graves of their loved ones regularly and hold large meals on top of them — the grooves around the edges collected the olive oil and other juices from the meal that would run down the stone during the feasting.
At first, I found myself instinctively recoiling from the idea of eating on top of a grave, thinking that it seemed a bit creepy. But then I realized that being so comfortable with the thin veil between life and death would actually be a gift — it could help us feel closer to our loved ones after death, and subsequently to see death as a normal part of life, not something to fear. Praying for our loved ones in purgatory, and asking for their prayers, is consistent with this idea.
Preparing for death as a Christian means embracing hope
When I asked Sister Aletheia how we can try to prepare ourselves for a good death, she said we need to live with the horizon of death always before us, the way Christ did: “Jesus was not surprised by the Cross. He was not sentenced by Pilate and then shocked that he was going to die young and in such terrible circumstances. Rather, he knew that he was going to die for us, and he prepared for his death from the moment he was born. We are called to the same dynamic. It sounds depressing, but it’s the secret paradox of the Christian life. In dying we find life.”
Another important way to prepare is to regularly pray with a crucifix. The priest at my home parish, Father Joseph Welch, CO, explained that it helps “knowing that there is nothing by way of suffering and anguish and pain that we can experience in this life that He has not already taken upon Himself and experienced also. Our God is Emmanuel, God-with-us, and as such, He is truly and authentically with us in all that we suffer — if only we would let Him be.”
In the end, as I watched dad go through the torture of a painful and slow death, I kept thinking back to the experience of labor when I had given birth to my daughter eight months earlier. The extreme pain, the retreat into our most primal self, the sense of transformation and transition — in all of these ways, I felt like dad was going through a labor of his own. Life is framed by a similar struggle at the beginning and the end, and just like the labor of childbirth, it’s not necessarily going to be an easy process, so it’s important to prepare.
As surely as we’ll all face grief and suffering in our time here on earth, and finally our own death, I also believe that we can find traces of something new in the pain of that final struggle. Like Sister Theresa said, “In dying we find life.”