WASHINGTON, D.C. — Michaela Gallagher was a 16-year-old volunteer at the Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Residence for the elderly poor in Somerville, Massachusetts, when she witnessed a human die for the first time in her young life.
Gallagher was on duty at the assisted living center and ventured into a room where the women religious were keeping vigil with a 101-year-old resident who was expected to die sometime that day.
“One of the sisters saw me standing in the back of the room and said, ‘Come closer,’ and motioned for me to sit right by this resident’s side,” she told Catholic News Service in a recent interview. “I remember wondering why she would want me to sit next to her — I had never seen anyone die before.”
“If I had any fear or hesitation, it was squashed right in that moment as I knelt by this little old lady’s side and held her hand as she slipped off into eternity,” she recalled.
“She died so peacefully. One of the sisters noticed there were tears coming down my cheeks. I didn’t even realize until she slipped me a couple of tissues. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t frightened. The tears were flowing because in that moment, I was very much at peace,” Gallagher said.
“I’ll never forget that evening and I will always be grateful to that little 101-year-old lady for what she unknowingly did for me at the moment of her death.”
In that moment, the fear of death was lifted from Gallagher — now a 19-year-old sophomore at Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts — and a Christian calling of accompanying the dying was answered.
In the ensuing three years since that first experience, she has accompanied more residents in their final moments of life, which she sees as a way of ushering them into heaven.
It’s a philosophy reaffirmed by a Vatican letter titled “‘Samaritanus bonus,’ on the Care of Persons in the Critical and Terminal Phases of Life,” released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Sept. 22 and approved by Pope Francis.
The first part of the document declares that “while essential and invaluable, palliative care in itself is not enough unless there is someone who ‘remains’ at the bedside of the sick to bear witness to their unique and unrepeatable value.”
The practice of accompanying the dying can be seen in the example of Mary, who stood at the foot of the cross as Jesus left his biological life, said Sister Maureen Weiss, who was the administrator and mother superior at the Little Sisters of the Poor Jeanne Jugan Residence for the elderly poor in Somerville when Gallagher began her volunteer work there.
“Michaela organically understood why the church teaches us that the room of a dying person must be a sanctuary with someone who will offer consolation and hope as they leave this world and enter eternal life,” Weiss told CNS.
Gallagher said she marveled at the Little Sisters of the Poor who would take turns staying with a dying resident around the clock, often laughing with them, singing with them, praying with them, sometimes crying with them, which taught her that the end of someone’s life can be a celebration of the journey before and the journey to come.
Though the Little Sisters of the Poor sold the Somerville assisted living home to the Visiting Nurse Association in August, Gallagher continues to work there as a part-time employee while in college. She is sometimes asked by her peers what to expect if they ever witness someone die.
She tells them while it may seem like a scary event, there is nothing to fear.
“Death is a very natural, inevitable part of life,” said Gallagher, a parishioner of St. Agnes Catholic Church in Arlington, Massachusetts. “If you are being given the opportunity to accompany someone else during their end-of-life journey, realize what a privilege and grace that is. Take advantage of this gift you have been given.
“Know that it’s OK to be sad, too. It’s not easy watching someone suffer and die, especially when it’s someone you love deeply,” she said.
“But you can take comfort and draw strength from the fact that you are doing what you can to alleviate their suffering and to bring them comfort and peace during this most sacred time.”