Last week was, frankly, the most intense week of my life: ever! But it was also the most moving, the most profound, the most challenging. It was a week filled with death. It was a week filled with grace. It was a week filled with sadness. It was a week filled with exhaustion. It was a week filled with the Cross.
Before I go any further I must again say this: what happens here is in many ways very sacred. To work around death is to be on holy ground. Thus at times I will be vague in my descriptions, if I use names I will change them, and I will leave out very intimate details because what happened in this house last week, much of it must stay in this house, must stay in the houses of the hearts of those who work here.
It began on Saturday night. We had a hospice patient who we knew wouldn’t be here very long and, sure enough, he passed away within 36 hours. Thanks be to God we was conditionally baptized and received anointing. He passed away while I was asleep and woke up the next morning to find out he had passed away. I never really got to know him – though I am his conditional godfather and thus must keep him in my prayers until I die – but we prayed for him on Sunday.
The next couple of days were like the usual. One of our hospice patients was especially trying. I must admit, it was difficult to love him. His constant demands – most of which were unnecessary and which he could do himself – got on my nerves to say the least. But Sr Faustine – who at times was equally frustrated with him – reminded me gently that it was Jesus calling my name. But it was tough. And this would go on all week with George, during what would become an intense few days.
Tuesday night came. I was going to the chapel to pray night prayer and, as I often do, would simply check in on the hospice patients even though someone else was on shift. I checked in on one man we had received on Friday and who I gave a shower to on Sunday. I looked in and couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not. Dennis, one of the volunteers here, told me that he had just given him some water and that he was fine. But I turned on the light and walked up to him. He was in the exact same position I saw him in earlier. I put my hand on his chest: still warm but no breath. I checked his pulse. He had passed on peacefully within the 10 minutes after Dennis had given him some water.
Each time someone passes away here, we have a routine. The first thing we do, if the sisters are not here, is we call Sr. Faustine and she with one other sister – they’re ALWAYS in twos! – will come and confirm. Sr. Faustine, being a Nurse Practitioner, is the one who has to officially call the death. She does paper work and whoever is up will wash the body and dress it up in the finest clothes they have. We then move the body – all done with great care of course! – to the chapel where they lie in state until the funeral parlour will come and pick up the body. This happened Tuesday evening – I didn’t get to bed until 1am by the time we had finished everything and I finally got to my night prayers – and so he layed in state in the chapel overnight. This as perfect because we could then arrange to have the mass here the following morning and have a funeral mass for this man. It is a real privilege for people to die here. They will receive God’s forgiveness when otherwise they would have been in places where access to a priest would not be so easy. They have the prayers of the sisters, the volunteers and others the sisters call to pray for them.
So, we are now at Wednesday morning.
Throughout the day I spent a lot of time with a patient I will simply call the Professor. We all came to love this man while he was here. He used to teach Philosophy and Sciences but didn’t have much retirement money saved up and so didn’t have anywhere for hospice care. About a week before he simply went to his bed and since that day had been asleep, or at least out of it. There was the VERY rare time he would open his eyes, but he was unable to communicate. I really came to love this man and, through his son, learned about the amazing life he had lived. Wednesday afternoon, things looked like they were getting even worse. Sr. Faustine told me to call his son to come and see him that evening. He showed up with his wife and son and simply sat there. Again, like the night before, I emerged from my room at 10:00 to go and say my night prayers. I looked in on one hospice patient and re-did a bit of his gauze and then went to go and check the Professor’s temperature. As much as I wish I could share his death with you, I feel a responsibility to withhold it. It was a beautiful death and his son was there with him holding his hand as his last breath left his body. That is all I will say at this moment.
Before continuing: this was the first time ever in my life I was present when someone had passed away. I had heard from others – especially priests – that you could tell when the soul and the body separated. There was a sudden lack of presence in the room. They were right on about that. It was a VERY powerful experience to be in the room with him as he took his last breath, as we prayed the divine mercy chaplet, as his son held his hand. It’s one of those experiences I will never forget.
So, again, like the night before, we had to clean up his body and prepare the chapel for him. But first – and this is rare here – we had a family present. Most of the people who come through our doors have no family, no one to love them. The Professor had his son. It was the first time I had to tell someone “I’m sorry, but your father has just died”. So I spent some time with his son first. He was sad, but also happy. He got to be there with his father in his last minutes. He knew great grace had been given him. After they left we again prepared the body and moved his body to the chapel. We had a funeral Mass again on Thursday morning with his family coming.
After the Mass, I walked towards the office and, as I did, I checked on our remaining two hospice patients. I thought to myself “well, I think we have had enough death for a week, and these two aren’t going anywhere too quickly.” One man we had admitted on Tuesday. It was the man whose wound I was dressing the night before. I looked in and he didn’t seem to be breathing. I put my hand on his chest and checked his pulse for a minute. He had passed away, probably just after we finished the funeral Mass for the Professor. I went to the office and told sister that Sam had passed away. She looked at me like I was pulling a bad joke. I told her I’m serious, and I wanted her to confirm it for me. She came in and said that he had indeed passed on. So, we had to prepare yet another body. But we couldn’t move him to the chapel because the professor was still there. We had hoped to be able to move Sam to the chapel but by the time Sam’s family had arrived, the professor had yet to be picked up by the funeral parlor. In between the morning when I had to clean up Sam and the afternoon when Sam’s family arrived, I was running around more or less like a chicken with it’s head cut off. The phone wouldn’t stop ringing and the sisters were on their “in” day. Sr. Faustine tried to come over as much as possible but couldn’t come that much. So I was also busy on the phone trying to arrange for the arrival of a new AIDS resident and giving out details for death certificates for the other deaths that had just occurred. Even when other volunteers were here, when all I wanted to do was lie down and do nothing and let it all sink in, I was being called to do even more. And so I did it.
That afternoon, Sam’s family came by. We prayed the rosary together and I said the lay prayers for the dead and gave a few words of consolation to the family. After they had left, I went to sit down with George. You remember George. He was the one who I struggled to serve. He was the overly demanding one, the nagging one, the complaining one. I sat down with him and explained to him that now that he was the only hospice patient left, we could give him a lot more time, to give him more attention. He had been forgotten a bit because those who were dying needed our attention more. George was in relatively good shape, all things considering. He was dying, but we knew he had a while.
That night Dennis and I went out to have some dinner and a beer and watch some hockey. We were both mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually worn out. We needed to get out of this place. We said “thankfully, it’s all over”.
Friday morning. Dennis knocks on my door at 6:10am. He opens it up and says to me “I think George is dead”. I get myself dressed and go to George’s room. Dennis wants me to confirm his suspicion. He was right. George was dead. We phone sister, she didn’t believe it, no one did! But it was true. We were to have Mass at 7am, and so we decided to have it at Gift of Love again (Mass is usually next door at the sisters’ convent). So we had 50 minutes to clean and dress him up for a funeral Mass. This was supposed to be my – much needed by this point! – day off, which didn’t happen (and I’m ok with that, death doesn’t take a day off!).
We had the funeral Mass. Sister asked for my help with some things that morning. Then we left to bury the man who had died on Saturday. You see, if someone has no family when they come here, the sisters cover the costs of the burial. The sisters do NOT cremate, and they pay for the plot, casket, and everything. This man was one of those men. So I went with them that day and we prayed for the repose of his soul. I came back and then that afternoon we had a Memorial Mass for Sam as on the first Friday of the month, a priest comes in the afternoon to celebrate Mass at Gift of Love. Sam’s family came. I read the readings. It was very simple but very beautiful. The family was very moved by the gesture.
Saturday came. Saturday morning Sister had asked Dennis and I to take any residents who wanted to go to see this Virutal Pilgrimage to Lourdes that they were doing at Holy Name of Jesus church. So we went that morning. The afternoon I had off for a bit, but then was busy with paperwork and other things that I could help sister with that evening. Then the evening came.
I was exhausted.
I was burnt out.
I was numb.
I hadn’t had a chance to process anything.
All I wanted to do was just lay in my bed and do nothing except – God willing! – sleep.
But on Saturday evenings I serve for Deacon Ben at the Sisters’ convent for adoration.
I ran to the convent as I was busy doing things and was almost late for 5:30pm. But when I got in the sacristy to put my alb on, I just put my head against the wall.
I said to Jesus “I have nothing left to give Lord. I have given everything. I’m done”.
I really meant that. It was a bit of a consolation to me, but it was also a simple fact. I couldn’t do anymore. I needed some time to process things. Prayer was very fruitful because it was a time of peace, though it was also difficult for me to concentrate at all. But I knew the Lord was giving to me what I needed because I could do nothing on my own. I needed Jesus to pray in me. And that is what happened. I had to trust Him with my prayers even. I had to simply receive His love for me. I realized that night that that is what prayer really is: to allow oneself to be loved by God.
I am still processing that week. I am still tired. Tomorrow is my day off and I told Sr. Faustine that I am disappearing for the day. She said “good”. But I learned a lot this past week. I want to share some my lessons with you all.
- Death is always near. Our life is a training for the moment of death. Memento mori is a good motto for life. We may think it drab and gloomy, but it is actually life giving. Death is horrific, it is scary to face. But, it is a fact. It is, in many ways, THE fact. We must take this fact seriously. By taking it seriously, we begin to live each moment seeking to bring the true meaning into it, which only comes from our loving Father in heaven.
- Death has its own timetable. Do not be afraid to proclaim the Gospel. We have no idea when people will go. How often we lose opportunities to bring Christ to others. Christ is the Way to the Father. We must present this Way to all so that they too may be with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity.
- Death weighs. Experiencing this much death is a numbing thing. But it is numbing because, I realized, it is experienced on a very deep level. It is felt, experienced, etc. But not in the usual fleeting way. It has a weight to it. It sticks around. It weighs on your soul.
- Prayer. Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray. Never have I prayed so much. Never have I seen such a need for prayer. Not just verbal, recited prayers, though those too. But pray for those in your life. Ask God to loosen the bond if sin in your own heart and in the hearts of those you love, or even those you don’t know. Offer sacrifices for them. It works. I don’t know how – and don’t care – but it does work. Spend silent time with the Lord, allow yourself to be loved by Him. Prayer is simply the response to this fundamental gaze of love.
- Death makes this world pointless. Nihilism has a point: if God is dead, then all is nothing. Death makes this fact very clear. Never have I seen the futility of the world with such sharpness as I have after this past week. Suddenly my likes and dislikes mean very little to me. My desire for more “things” in this world is gone. Even my love for hockey – and it is strong! – has lessened after all this. It is all pointless! Only faith matters in the end. What is it we have faith in? A God Who is Love! And what is love? It is an action. Live love for others. That is all that matters in this life. Christ is the ALL of our lives and we, His creatures, are HIS all. So love Christ and love others.
- Never let the grumpiness or overbearingness of another get in the way of you loving them. I really didn’t give George the love he deserved all the time. I allowed myself to be overwhelmed by his neediness. To be overwhelmed by this is to focus your attention on yourself. Focus on the other. Die to yourself. Death makes the self even pointless! Not our personhood, but our egotistical self, the self that desires affirmation, companionship, possessions. Live for the other, and there you will find yourself.