Saturday, June 25, 2016

TRUE Death with Dignity

My brother-in-law is dying.

His poor body has been ravaged by a particularly unforgiving form of cancer called mesothelioma, with which he was diagnosed almost exactly a year ago.  Fifty years after exposure to asbestos while doing chimney work as a young man, this terrible disease struck him like a thunderbolt, just as he and my sister-in-law (my husband's older sister and "Irish twin") had begun the process of fulfilling their dream of starting a craft brewery in an old stone Army barracks that dates back to the Civil War.

In spite of all he's been through this past year, this dream became a reality a couple of months ago, and the historical building he and my sister-in-law lovingly transformed into a brewery/sports bar/tasting room/event center/restaurant/B&B has opened for business and has been wildly successful, breathing new life into the hometown where my husband's family has deep roots, going back several generations.

There is nothing more that can be done for my brother-in-law medically now, other than palliative care.  Surgery and chemo and trips back and forth to Boston to receive the most cutting-edge treatments from the foremost experts on the disease did not produce the hoped-for and prayed-for miracle, and he has come home to die.  He is surrounded by people who love him dearly and upon whom he must depend more and more every day to help him with even the simplest of tasks.

This man has always been exceptionally strong, a warrior, a rock for so many people--both personally and professionally.  It has to be hard--not just hard, but truly humbling--to depend on others for everything now, but this guy makes it look easy.  No one who has been privileged to observe the manner in which my brother-in-law handled the news of his diagnosis a year ago, how he endured the harrowing and painful treatments and recoveries in the past months, or how he has exhibited such tremendous heroism as he walks his own personal way of the Cross on the road home to his Father, will ever forget what they have witnessed.  He is showing us the way to die, the way to have a holy death; and it is a lesson I believe I for one badly needed.

Last night, my husband and I attended a party in one of the brewery's event rooms, and I got talking to my old high school biology teacher (who has a special place in her heart for the class of 1976, as we were her first real teaching job after she got her degree).  I mentioned that I was so awed and inspired by the dignity with which my brother-in-law is facing the end of his life.  He is uncomplaining and serene, appreciative of every little thing his loved ones do for him and thanking them profusely.  He is dealing with his own helplessness with such acceptance and grace, it's a wonder to behold.

"I don't like that word, 'dignity,'" she said.  "It has a different connotation now."  And she's right: the pro-euthanasia crowd has hijacked that particular term and made it mean something different to many folks.  There are some who would look at this man who is suffering in a way that no one should have to suffer (yes, but who is surrounded by so much love, who still has the capacity to give and receive love and find an incredible amount of joy in that, whose dying days have profoundly changed and improved the lives of everyone around him) and say that to give him a dignified death,  his pain should be ended at once.  It would be more merciful, they would argue.

But I would argue differently.

I started out this post by saying that my brother-in-law is dying.  Scratch that; what I should have said is that my brother-in-law is becoming a saint, right before our very eyes.

The first thing this man said when handed the worst news of his life was, "I want to become a Catholic before I die."  Let that sink in for a minute.

Raised a Lutheran, he was inspired (not pressured, but inspired) by my sister-in-law to convert.  He has been attending Mass for years, even going alone when my sister-in-law and he happened to be apart.  But the official process of entering the Church had not been completed.  Well, I am happy to report that last week, a priest at the parish my husband and his family always attended baptized him a Catholic, and he was able to receive First Holy Communion.  If this had happened even a few days after it did, he might not have been able to swallow the Host.  God is so good!

My brother-in-law is, as my husband says, giving the rest of us a clinic on how to die a holy death.  He is facing the end of his earthly life with courage, grace, and deep faith.  He is graciously allowing his loved ones to give of themselves unconditionally to keep him as comfortable as possible (a privilege which is in fact a tremendous gift that those who never get to witness a truly dignified death completely miss out on).  He is not bitter or resentful, despite his suffering.  He loves life, even now; but he is not afraid to die.  This, I believe, is what death with dignity is really all about.

I realize that it is not our place to automatically canonize our loved ones, no matter how saintly they might seem, when they pass from this life; we are instructed to pray for them unceasingly, for no one but God can know the state of any individual's immortal soul.

But I can't help but feel as if I am watching the making of a saint.

19 comments:

  1. Praying for him and your family! I pray God gives him the peace he and your family need as He brings him closer to Home.

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  2. I couldn't agree more. I am so proud of him and love him so much.

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  3. I can't imagine how hard this was for you to write. Thank you.

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  4. Thank you for sharing this...so inspiring. Praying for your brother-in-law and all of you

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  5. You have done a beautiful job in your writing of of capturing the very essence of our faith. Continued prayers for strength, courage, and peace for Terry and the whole family.

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  6. So sorry that Terry and your family are going through this. My love to you all!

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  7. Thank you Laura. love Beth W

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  8. Thank you for sharing. Terry is my cousin. I sit here in tears after reading your beautiful tribute and wishing that those of us here in Michigan could see him once more. Will you please tell him how much he is being prayed for and how much he is loved. I always thought of him as a hero when I was growing up and it sounds like he is still very much a hero. With Love, Christal.

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  9. Laura, your words give comfort and hope now and for our own mortality. I believe that it was before you were at St Johns when my father died under very similar circumstances at just 43 years of age. I will start a novena today. God bless you all. Please ask Tim to call me when he has the time. Frank Consoli 714-483-8467

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  11. Oh crying, what a beautiful, beautiful soul your bil has. Praying that Our Blessed Mother enfolds you all in her arms and is consolation for you all as you walk this last part of the Way of the Cross.
    Smiled to see that your bil and sil were able to realise their dream together :-)
    Prayers and love xxx

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  12. How absolutely beautiful! I will be praying for your brother-in-law and your whole family.

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  13. Just heard. Our deepest sympathy. Deacon Ned and I are praying for your whole family.

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  14. My best to you and your family. I knew Terry years ago; his reaction to this is inspiring, but not surprising. God bless.

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  15. Thank you for sharing from the depths of your heart, Laura. I am deeply touched by your words and Terry's example. My prayers and good wishes are with you and your family. May you experience Comforter of Hearts surrounding you with eternal Love that is palpable. Love, Claudia

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  16. Thank you for sharing with us, Laura. This is a beautiful post on a beautiful soul. This is very inspiring and a holy death is one I pray for myself, too. Many prayers, much peace and consolation to you, Terry and your families. God bless.

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  17. just re-read this and thank you Laura as I too felt I witnessed the making of a Saint

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  18. okay that is weird as I posted the above comment and I am Theres and it says Meg

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