Do you avoid sick or dying people because of how you feel?
Looking down on Kalaupapa, one sees the turquoise waters and bright whitecaps of the Pacific. A small town nestles between rough currents and steep cliffs, isolated from the rest of the island of Moloka’i. The idyllic scene, however, hides a history of suffering. Nineteenth-century lepers were exiled there; the quarantine was lifted in 1969. Today, 35 individuals remain in the former lepers’ colony. Their legacy includes the devastating physical and spiritual effects of illness. But they also share a legacy of Christ’s love, as shown through the tenderness of a young priest, Damien De Veuster.
“ ... My sin is always before me ... ” (Psalm 51) Father Damien witnessed the guilt of the healthy: “Why her instead of me?” It is a natural response, but the question has no answer. Prolonged guilt puts a wedge between loved ones, just at the time when they need each other most. The Book of Job emphasizes that suffering is not God’s angry reaction to sin, and that no one “deserves” an illness.
“Friends and companions shun my pain ... ” (Psalm 38:12) One way to deal with guilt is to pull back, either physically or emotionally. Physical changes that accompany dying are hard to bear. As Father Damien celebrated Mass, the smell of decaying flesh permeated the church. At times he went to the window for relief, but with strength from God he was able to face his flock once again. Companions to the dying need their own moments of renewal in order to offer support.
“ ... In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) As Pope John XXIII prepared for the “last rites,” those surrounding him began to cry. The pope hit the bedpost announcing, “Come now! Courage! Courage! It’s not yet the Requiem!” Like John XXIII’s friends, we sometimes wonder how to behave around a person who is dying.
Pray for guidance and courage to live fully, while preparing to say goodbye. Is there a favorite movie from the past to slip into the VCR? Would the fragrance of a particular flower be soothing on a bedside table? The loving touches of back rubs or hand massages can be soothing. Surprises remain fun, too! The gift of luxuriously soft sheets or a nightgown in the person’s favorite color can lighten the spirit while providing physical comfort. Be attentive to the energy level and mood of your loved one, allowing time for reminiscing or sharing concerns. Even Mother Teresa needed support when ministering to the dying. She chose Father Damien as a guide and was instrumental in his beatification. As we walk side-by-side with death, perhaps Mother Teresa and Blessed Damien can serve as examples when we offer Christ’s tender embrace to the dying.
– Dr. Cathleen McGreal is a professor of Psychology at Michigan State University and a certified spiritual director.