Death and Dying: A Christian Perspective

Life begins, and life end ends. As Christians we hold dear the inherent dignity of that life for its entirety—from its beginning at conception to its natural conclusion. And while we hope death will not come too soon, we know that as St. Francis Sales put it, God will harvest everything in its season. In that spirit, it is important to not dwell upon our inescapable demise with anxiety, but to be prepared for it and to care for others as death nears.

In this examination of the end of life, three people show us comfort and joy as they recall their direct and indirect ministries to the dying in their labors in the garden of the Lord. A minister, a layperson, and a nurse offer their own special Christian perspectives on death and dying.

Rev. Ernie Simmers, Assemblies of God Church | An Ecumenical Conversation 

Rev. Ernie Simmers and I have had plenty of opportunities to discuss theology, philosophy, and social issues. At least once per month, and sometimes twice, we come together to share our thoughts and ideas, each from our unique perspective. Of course, our respective denominations differ in certain teachings such as the transubstantiation and a priest acting in persona Christi. Also, our churches’ sacramental worldviews diverge. Nonetheless, Simmers (an evangelical minister of the Assemblies of God Church) and I (a philosophy professor and a Secular Franciscan in the Catholic Church) are yet to adamantly disagree on the many theological concepts we choose to discuss. Instead, we learn from each other and break down barriers between our denominations as we uncover that they are really based upon misunderstandings and misconceptions. In fact, each of us on separate occasions has remarked how similar our Christian theologies actually are. As we continue to foster our friendship and mutual respect, exploring our perceptions of ministry with the aging, sick, and dying presented an opportunity for an enjoyable and enlightening dialog.

Rev. Simmers, now retired but still quite active in pastoral ministry, was ordained a minister of the Assemblies of God Church in 1970 when he assumed his first pastorate in Port Matilda, central Pennsylvania. Prior to ordination, he attended Northeast Bible College (now Valley Forge University) in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. His ministry would then take him from those outskirts of the City of Brotherly Love to the center of the commonwealth to the great western Pennsylvania region of Altoona and to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre metropolitan area in the northeast corner of the state. In his retirement, Simmers is settled in Columbia County, northcentral Pennsylvania. His wide geographic reach afforded Simmers the opportunity to minister to a multitude of people in churches and communities of varying sizes and socioeconomic statuses. Whether stopping by to visit the new members of a congregation or praying with the sick in hospitals and nursing homes, pastoral visitation has always been at the center of Simmers’ ministry.

Through this vast experience, his commitment to life-long learning, and renewed interest in Catholic doctrine (he occasionally quotes Pope Francis), Simmers had much to offer on the topic of ministry, beginning with ethical issues facing the aging, sick, dying. Matters of ethics have “increasing become more complex” Simmers observed looking back on his 50-plus years ordained. He lamented that things which were not issues years ago have become issues. Matters of morality which at one time were not questioned are now being questioned, ridiculed, and even cast aside. The ethical challenge in ministry, according to Simmers, is that many issues cannot be simply “sliced down the middle.” Not everything is black-and-white. Referring to end-of-life care, Simmers noted that medical advancements, while of great value to science and society, have complicated matters by taking much out of human hands.

“There was a time,” Simmers recalled, “when people naturally died without intervention. Artificial means of maintaining or ending life have created a dilemma. Where do you draw the line?” The line to which Simmers referred centers around euthanasia. “There is a line, a difference,” he said, “between taking a life and allowing someone to die.” This position aligns with the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s Declaration on Euthanasia. The Declaration cites a human person’s “right to die peacefully with human and Christian dignity” (IV). For Simmers and for the Catholic Church, it is about preserving dignity and minimizing suffering while allowing for the natural end-of-life process to occur. To that point, Simmers pointed out that some people are so attached to this earthly life and to their loved ones that they will not allow for any removal of artificial life support. “I certainly am not there,” he succinctly asserted.

Though rooted in his Christian education and ministry, Simmers is acutely aware of the varying belief systems in modern society. Referring to atheistic views, Simmers was quick to point out what he called “the eternal factor.” Christians look at people as having an eternal soul, whereas atheists do not. For an atheist everything is here, in this life. Perhaps this is why so many existentialists are atheists, but that is a whole other conversation. Returning atheism and humanity, Simmers made note of creation. “Creation of the human person comes from God,” he said. “As far as an atheist believes, we came out of the slime. But where did the slime come from?” That simple question sparked a long digression into the contingency arguments for the existence of God first asserted by Aristotle in his theory of the unmoved mover in Metaphysics Book XII. Infinite regress is illogical. There had to be a first mover, a first cause, a creator.

Coming back to the matter at hand, Simmers noted that everyone—theist and atheist alike—recognizes the reality of death. “Yes, God answers prayers and performs miracles,” he said, “but no matter how often that may happen, there comes a time when that will not happen. Death is inevitable.” No matter how healthy or strong we are, we will come to the point when the body ceases to function. Everyone recognizes this. The key, Simmers said, is to have an eternal perspective—the eternal factor. However, even with that perspective, apprehension is to be expected. It is the apprehension of advancing to somewhere we have never been before: our eternal home. “No matter how strong our faith is, we all have a little fear of death because we’ve never been there before,” Simmers said. It is indeed human nature to fear the unknown.

Yet some react differently. Simmers recalled encountering people so strong in their faith that they came to the point at which they almost looked forward to death. Such embracing of the end of life is reminiscent of the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux. On a similar theme, Simmers recounted the story of a woman who was terminally ill and aware that many members of her church were praying for healing. During a visit from her pastor, she asked him to please have the people stop. She was ready to go home, and she longed for their release.

Perspective on life and death changes over time; it evolves with age. Rev. Simmers and I ended our conversation on this note as he explained to me that when we are young, we don’t buy things with the intention of keeping them for the rest of our lives. Speaking on the day after his seventy-seventh birthday, he knew that much of what he has will outlast him. “I’m probably not going to wear out my guitars now. It’s just a fact.”

Laura Heger, Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania | From Death into Life 

Laura Heger works for Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania at Bloomsburg. She manages the university store on the largest of the state school’s three campuses, all situated in rural parts of the Keystone State. She also oversees a course materials program for the entire university, which she implemented and has saved students millions of dollars on textbooks. True Christian charity at work in the secular world. A 10-year veteran of the retail and course materials operation, Heger inherited most of her staff, many of whom—10 years later—are closing in on retirement. One particular person of Heger’s long-time employ was Mary, a childless widow with little family. She had even fewer friends outside the bustling shopping hub for students, faculty, and alumni. “All she really had was work,” Heger remarked during our conversation. “I was always afraid that if she ever decided to retire, she would just die.” Mary worked on the university store’s help desk.

Aside from the agony of loneliness, Mary suffered from a variety of chronic ailments which added to Heger’s concern for her over the years. Though neither at her bedside nor in a formal ministry, Heger—a devout Christian—was knowingly and willingly caring for an aging, dying person in the final year of Mary’s earthly life. Born and raised in a church-going Protestant family, Heger is the embodiment of ecumenism and Christian witness. She attends Catholic Mass every Sunday and uses the biblical knowledge she gained as a child and adolescent to comfort those close to her and unpack theological concepts that fascinate her. She employs a faith-and-reason approach to her theology, which is something of a contrast to her evangelical upbringing. “The Catholic Church is very attractive to me,” she noted. St. John Paul II would be pleased with Heger’s approach.

Heger, who considered herself one of Mary’s few friends, was perhaps among the first (or even the only) persons to recognize Mary’s decline. In this recognition, she found herself in a position similar to that of a loved one at a dying person’s bedside. Like a bedside loved one, Heger began to mourn her friend as she watched the inevitable end of life slowly approach. In her mourning, though, Heger realized she was also helping Mary to live. She helped Mary choose how to live—as actively as possible, having a purpose, and surrounded by colleagues. A true Christian soldier, Heger proved that ministry to the aging, sick, and dying is not reserved only for those in healthcare and formal ministry. She showed that such ministry can and should happen everywhere, not only at home or in hospitals and skilled nursing facilities. Further, Heger reinforced the necessity of family during the time of decline and eventually death.

Merging the secular and practical needs of her friend with her own dedication to being a living disciple of Christ, Heger cared for Mary in a special way. Her holistic approach, driven by her Christian values, prolonged Mary’s earthly life and sent her to the next with a sense of belonging and purpose. When Mary did not respond to phone calls during a few days off from work, Heger became concerned. It was common practice for Mary to stay in touch with her colleagues even when taking some respite from work. As the days passed, Heger’s concern grew. As the phone calls and text messages went unanswered, Heger knew what had transpired. Motivated by love, respect, and firm belief in human dignity, Heger and a few colleagues headed to Mary’s home. Heger knew it was not going to be a visit, but rather a discovery—a confirmation of what she was certain had happened. After entering the home and calling out to her friend in vain, Heger found Mary. She was lying in bed never having awoken from sleep. Heger’s efforts assured Mary of the dignity she deserved. She was found by her friend soon after her death. Earthly life had ended leaving an intact friendship behind.

Today Mary’s memory is alive on the Bloomsburg campus of Commonwealth University. In addition to her portrait adorning a wall near the help desk, there is a quiet, but more personal homage to Mary in the university store. Proud of her work and somewhat territorial when it came to her workstation, Mary once had a particularly direct response when a colleague used the wrong words to refer to Mary’s workspace. True to her fashion, Mary remarked, “It’s my [expletive] desk.” In a comedic, loving, and familial spirit, Heger made one last tribute to her departed friend. Under Mary’s former workstation is neatly affixed a small metal plaque engraved with one simple phrase: Mary’s [expletive] desk.

Noel Bolick, RN, BSN, Geisinger Community Medical Center | A Nursing Perspective

Noel Bolick, RN, BSN, has been in the nursing industry since 2012 when she became a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). Now a Registered Nurse (RN) since 2019 who holds a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), Bolick is working on a mental health certification and pursuing a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) with a concentration in education. Dedicated to all facets of her field, Bolick works on the medical/surgical floor of Geisinger Community Medical Center while serving as Mental Health Program Specialist in the Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) program at Lackawanna College. Both institutions are located in the center of Scranton, Pennsylvania and provide for patients and students throughout the northeastern corner of the state.

A devout Catholic, Bolick spends her Sunday mornings participating in Holy Mass at Sacred Heart Parish near her home. She can often be found socializing with her pastor, a kindred spirit with whom she and her husband have formed a special personal bond. As a deeply spiritual woman, Bolick has dedicated her life to the service of others, caring for the sick and educating future caregivers.

“I love Jesus,” Bolick professed during a recent coffee meetup. This proclamation set the tone for our conversation as it defined the root of her work and personal philosophy of life and death. From a clinical standpoint, Bolick defined dying as “the process of either abruptly or slowly coming to the end of life.” It can be as swift as a car accident or played out as a diagnosis that lasts for years. She has seen both scenarios in her time caring for patients. Turning to a spiritual and metaphysical point of view, Bolick defined death as an occurrence during which “the physical part of the person is no longer there, but the spiritual part moves on to another place.” Her firm belief of the passing of the soul from this world to the next is found not only in her Catholic faith, but in her cultivated understanding of science. She posed a rhetorical question: “If, scientifically, energy cannot be crated or destroyed, then where does it go when we die?”

Recalling some of her more difficult memories, Bolick reflected on her time working at Allied Services Skilled Nursing Center in Scranton during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I had patients who would be fine one day and gone the next,” she remembered with sadness. “I lost almost all the patients I took care of during COVID.” Her experience during the pandemic, though, only helped to further define her personal philosophy on joy at the end of life. As we explored the topic, she spoke much about presence and conversation. She related these factors to comfort and joy in a person’s final months, weeks, and even days. “Sometimes it’s just the presence of a nurse or the conversation we have when we bond over something like cats that can be source of joy,” she observed. With a coy smile, she offered a bit of joy by identifying herself as a “crazy cat lady.”

In Bolick’s experience, finding joy in the final chapters of life is also related to acceptance and preparation. “To find joy, people have to accept death and feel like they have achieved everything they wanted to in life,” she explained. “Sometimes there are things they need to resolve before they can find joy.” Of course, resolution is not always a tangible possibility. For cases in which a person is unable to directly make amends for past mistakes or regrets, Bolick recommended journaling and even crafting correspondence that can be delivered after death if necessary. “They must find a way to resolve matters internally thorough religion or spirituality, journaling, writing, and leaving letters,” she advised. “Talking to someone who they trust can also help get those things out.”

Remembering her many encounters with death, Bolick added, “People on their deathbeds tend to release their secrets.” This release of secrets and resolution of worldly matters is not unlike St. Catherine of Siena’s approach. In her “spiritually motivated voluntary poverty” Catherine prepared for death by emptying herself of all things of this world. This act prepared her to fill herself with presence of God.

As a nurse for more than a decade, Bolick has witnessed a significant amount of suffering in a variety of ways. In his 1984 apostolic letter Salivici Doloris, Saint John Paul II taught that suffering is a part of the human condition that can bring inner peace and spiritual joy (2, 26). Bolick agrees. “I don’t think there’s any getting around it,” she said. “Everyone suffers at some point in life. At the end of life, in the aging process, there is suffering.” She believes that if people can find peace in their suffering, they can find joy. Spiritual care is key. “A big part of preparation for dying patients is having the last rites,” she observed. “Even in their suffering, talking to a priest while they are still able to remember and participate makes a difference.”

While quality of life, independence, and physical health all decline with the aging process, there are clearly many ways to seek comfort and find joy. Acceptance is important. So is perspective: acknowledging the real value in a life lived. Bolick: “I just think you find joy in remembering all the things you did in your life; reminiscing about the life you lived with the people you who loved you the most.”

Final Thoughts

Three people of varying faiths and different vocations have shown us many common factors that go into caring for the aging, sick, and dying. Compassion, presence, and dignity are essential for those who are a part of the end of someone’s life. Acceptance of the inevitability and the process is key as well.

One afternoon, while sitting with my 98-year-old grandmother, I looked around the nursing home dining room. Some residents were eating well; others were being fed. Some simply sat and stared. “What a simple existence they have,” I thought. It wasn’t a depressing realization for me, though. I took comfort in observing people who had lived long lives being free of the stress and burdens of everyday living. They each lived their way into a state free of work and responsibility, left only to be present and enjoy the presence of others.

Perhaps, if the book of one’s life is filled with grace, beauty, and love, then a simple final chapter is well earned. If we create a rich story throughout life, we can enjoy comfort and joy as our story comes to an end.

Turn the page. Close the book.