As we move through the month of November, the traditional month of the dead for Christian believers, it’s worth exploring a few truths given by the Christian faith to death and dying.
Some years ago, a friend told me that he wasn’t afraid of death, just of dying. While the idea of separating death from dying might sound comical, there are reasons for the separation. And those reasons can help us to see both death on one hand, and dying on the other, with different eyes.
Truth be told, we can’t really be that bothered by the idea of being dead, because – well – we’ll be dead. The idea of dying, however, can shake us. It can unsettle our minds since we’ll have to walk through that process at some point and we’re not really sure how that’s going to happen, whether it will be painful, and who we might leave behind.
The stark reality of death can oftentimes scare us and lead us to see death as a terrible evil that must be avoided at all costs. The idea of losing our autonomy, which is the control we have over our own lives, can make us profoundly agitated and existentially restless. The idea of permanently letting go of everything we have and of everyone we love can profoundly disturb us.
Our dying process will be the most extreme time of transition we’ll have as human beings. Our beliefs on the afterlife will shape and mold most of our reactions at the thought of moving from one well- known stage of life into a veiled, mysterious one.
As Christians, we place our trust in the Lord Jesus, and we see that death has lost its sting. We hope in the resurrection and such a light destroys our fears. In Jesus Christ, we’re able to see the full reality of human existence, during and after this life.
In Christ, therefore, we see that our lives are a journey and death is a process. And while dying may be difficult, it leads us into eternal life. As such, believers understand that death is not an ultimate end or final goodbye.
By the power of the resurrection, death becomes a transition that only initiates a new phase of life, one that leads us from glory unto glory.
Our discipleship, with all its triumphs and failures throughout our lives, does not end in the dying process, but is empowered and intensified through it. As in life, so in death, we are called to cling to the Lord Jesus, truly risen from the dead, and give him all our fears and anxieties. In the dying process, we are especially called to be united to Jesus Christ.
In light of the resurrection, we see our dying process as the last gift that we can give to the Lord Jesus. As such, the Church walks with us and gives us helpful instructions to the various medical procedures and questions surrounding the process of dying.
Whether it’s the use of breathing tubes, the continuation of nutrition and hydration, or the use of pain medication and palliative care, the Church interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ on these matters and guides us so that we can die well and in the full abundance of his grace.
We are called, therefore, to give our dying process— and all the decisions surrounding it—to the Lord Jesus. Again, it is our last earthly gift to our loving Savior.
In response to people who fearfully say, “I want to die with dignity,” the Church – echoing the teachings of Jesus Christ – confidently teaches us, “You will die with dignity. Nothing can take your dignity from you. In whatever way you die, and whatever might happen to you in the process, the God who created you and gave you your dignity will be the God who walks with you and gives you the strength to die a good death in his grace. You can trust him!”
In the process of dying, we have to be aware of the influence of fear. Whether it’s a fear of diminished capacity, or losing our control, or being kept alive in ways we would not prefer, such fears can be matured, enlightened, and consoled by the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the sure guidance of the Church on how to die a holy death.
While death can be unsettling, it’s a part of life. The more we prepare for it, pray about it, and discuss the various possibilities surrounding it with loved ones, the more it becomes less fearful and a regular part of our lives.
Father Kirby’s newest book, We Are the Lord’s: A Catholic Guide to Difficult End-of-Life Questions, is now available through Saint Benedict Press.