Thursday, April 9, 2009


Death and I are no strangers. I was six when my then 18-year-old brother died three days after he had been in a car accident. I was thirteen when my uncle fell ill at work and died the following day. Six months later, I was fourteen when my aunt, his wife, didn't wake up one morning and the doctor said she had literally died of a broken heart. I was leading my son's cub scout den one wintry Saturday afternoon when the call came that my father had suddenly stopped breathing in his home; and, in the intervening years, I had lost two babies to miscarriage. No, death and I are not strangers.

The thing is, the death that I am used to is a sudden, shocking, gut wrenching kind that throws you off balance, into shock, and into a state of auto pilot as you navigate the twists and turns of choosing caskets, planning the wake and funeral, ordering flowers, and finally burial of our beloved. The kind of death that doesn't really hit you until the last casserole is finished, and the task of moving forward has begun.

The death I am meeting this week is so very, very different, and so very, very, very unkind.

This week, I am meeting firsthand, for the very first time in my life, the death of unrelenting pain and suffering. The kind of death that is seemingly as difficult to watch as it is to endure. The kind of death that leaves the patient writhing in pain and the loved ones drenched in a pain all their own: a pain borne of compassion, empathy, and a powerlessness that just tears your heart in two. The kind of death that Christ suffered on the cross, and the Blessed Mother, the disciple he loved, and those followers that hung around, witnessed at the foot of that cross.

As I stood at my aunt's bedside today, watching powerlessly as she writhed and moaned in a pain only she can know, I saw Christ. As her little body clenched, and her throat moaned with each new wave of pain, I recognized the same suffering that our Lord endured to free us from our sins, even, as my aunt has ceased to recognize me. As my aunt pulled at the light little blanket and hospital gown, whose even barely recordable weight was too much on her pain-riddled body, and her arms jerked outward trying to find release, she lay on that bed as Christ lay on the cross, naked and outstretched, as they nailed his arms and legs in place. As she rubbed her frail little fingers over her parched lips, I saw Jesus on the cross saying, "I thirst."

Yes, today, I witnessed Christ's suffering in the person of my aunt. It is very nearly too much for me to bear.

As I stood at the foot of my aunt's cross, her hospital bed, I prayed so many things at once. First, that the nurse (this one a true angel of mercy) would hurry with the pain medication the doctor has prescribed at three hour intervals. Second, that God in His infinite mercy would put an end once and forever to my aunt's unrelenting pain and suffering. Third,that my aunt will find peace in our Heavenly Father's Presence when her journey is finally done.

It dawned on me that these same kind of prayers must have been prayed by Jesus' loved ones, too. How shocked Mary must have been at the soldier mockingly giving Jesus a sponge soaked with vinegar. Because her kidneys have shut down, and there is a fear of aspiration, I too was shocked to learn that that mainstay of hospital comfort, the ice chip, is out of the question for my aunt. I thought maybe a wet cloth, but was cautioned that the infection coursing through her body is highly contagious, and that I should refrain from touching her, and even then, sanitize my hands promptly upon leaving her room or risk bringing the infection home with me. In some small way, I knew how Mary must have felt when she was not allowed the simple courtesy of comforting her beloved son.

This death that I meet this week, just as Jesus' death was so long ago, is one of unbearable indignity. A death so horrific that Our Lord Himself cried out: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

Yet, it is through Christ's passion and suffering, and ultimate indignity that I find strength in the fact that God has not forsaken my aunt or I in this, our last earthbound journey together. It is in the promises of Christ that I find the peace in my heart to know deeply and completely that when my aunt breathes her last she will be in the arms of Our Savior and at peace at long last.

So, as the morphine began to do its job, I told my aunt, I loved her, and that we would do everything we could to ease her suffering and pain. And so tomorrow, comfort care and in hospital hospice will begin.

It is in the hands of the Risen Christ whom I know, and love, and have my being, that I faithfully place my aunt's eternal soul, knowing that when her unrelenting pain and suffering are over she will be joined for all eternity with Him in paradise.

Until then, May God's Will Be Done.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Rosemary,

    I have only recently subscribed to your blog, and through it I feel I have come to know you a bit already. And I was saddened to read your post today - saddened for your aunt, and saddened for each of you in your family.

    As a nurse, I have witnessed the kind of death you have described. It is gut-wrenching at best. But I believe without question that your aunt will be aware of the love you hold for her, that she will feel your nearness, and that it will comfort her. I've been taught - and believe - that hearing is the last sense to go. Tell her of your love, let her know how much she has meant to you and how much you will miss her, reassure youthat she need not worry, that the family will take care of each other.

    May God ease her pain - and yours.

    In His love,