I lost someone very special recently, someone who demonstrated to me what a dignified death looks like. In the eyes of the world, he had been dealt a lousy hand, sentenced to life in a wheelchair as his immune system ate away at the protective sheath that covered his nerves. But even as the disease continued to ravage his too young body, he let loose with his dry sense of humour, in turn causing those around him to roll their eyes in feigned exasperation or laugh a deep belly-aching laugh. He flirted good-naturedly with the visiting nurse (me) and the other caregivers who often subjected him to procedures and care that most men would find embarrassing. His caregivers were some of his favourite people and in allowing us to care for him, he confirmed that loving one’s neighbour brings out the best in the humanity of the giver as well as the recipient.
He knew the type of death that was in store for him because he had watched a sibling succumb to the same cruel disease. He understood his fate yet I never heard him say he wanted to end his life. He accepted death because dying a natural death, no matter what the circumstance, is part of living.
When the end came, I was shocked. I knew it was coming but his dignified, positive outlook made me think that death would not arrive for a long, long time. I expected that he would keep telling the same corny jokes, carry on with his harmless flirting, and inspire me to give him the very best nursing care during our regular visits. But his death finally came just as I knew deep down that it would.
He was buried out of a Catholic church; in the end, the lapsed Catholic coming home to the place he never should have left. I think in his heart he didn’t entirely abandon the Faith. I live with the hope that in the care and compassion he received, he experienced God’s mercy and realized his dignity as a beloved son of the Father. For isn’t it true that when we allow others to care for us, it is really God’s healing and compassion we receive?
He always made a point of thanking me for the care I gave him but I never thought to thank him. Until now.
Thank you for understanding that death with dignity doesn’t come from sleep-inducing, breath-retarding, heart-stopping drugs taken at a time and place chosen by you. Thank you for life lived well to the very end. For not wanting to give up. For meeting each day’s challenges head on. For not running away from certain death. For accepting compassion, care, love, friendship. For giving hope that a life of suffering is a life of love. For keeping your dignity to the very end. For showing, by your actions, that you still believed in a merciful God. For proving to us that a dignified death gives hope to those around you, shines with compassion, and is courageous to the very end.
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