Catholic teaching on death and dying helped me understand and navigate a series of moral hazards.
At 12:50 pm on Friday, October 31, I held my mother hand as she breathed her last and left this world. Barbara Gordon was born into poverty, but overcame that. She was widowed young and overcame that, too. During the last 30 years of her life she experienced profound physical suffering as she battled a viral infection of her heart that eventually required a transplant, followed by renal problems that destroyed her kidneys, crippling diabetes, and a variety of other ailments. Through it all she radiated the joy, peace and fearlessness that comes from an abiding personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Through Him, she overcame it all, even in death.
As her son, it was a privilege to be there, comforting and loving her to the end. But it was also a privilege to be there as a Catholic, which my mother was not. She, like my late father, was an ordained Evangelical Protestant minister. Her three sons all reconciled with the Church as adults, and although she respected our choices my mother remained outside the Catholic faith until the end.
For me, though, her death gave me a new appreciation for the Church’s teaching on death and the dignity of the human person, especially at the end of life, as well as those rites that comfort both the dying person and her survivors.
One week before my mother passed away, I received a call from the medical director at the nursing home where she had lived for the past year. He explained that in his opinion and that of the nursing staff my mom was beginning the process of “transitioning,” which he described as the interior movement from fighting for life to accepting death. He recommended that we enroll her in hospice in order to access the palliative care that service can offer.
We met with the hospice intake staff a couple days later. We explained that while we were prepared to let nature take its course, we had no interest in hastening my mother’s death or artificially depriving her of life-sustaining treatment like food and water. In other words, we wanted her to be made comfortable but weren’t interested in a sort of backdoor euthanasia. The hospice staff was visibly relieved. They told us that they often have to fend off requests to “speed things up” or administer chemical coups de grâce and thereby bring a natural process to an unnatural end.
As a Catholic making the final decision, I was able to consult the Church’s extensive teaching on end-of-life issues. That teaching helped me understand and navigate the moral hazards involved in making distinctions between ordinary and extraordinary care, pain management and terminal sedation, usefulness and necessity. It provided me with a moral-philosophical template with which I could contrast and align the particulars of my mother’s situation. It also provided a finely nuanced moral language, essential for clarifying my own thinking and communicating my conclusions to medical professionals.
Moreover, the Church’s teaching challenged me at all times to check my motivations, including my emotional reaction to the spectacle of my mother dying before my eyes. Through the well-tested counsel of the Church I was able to develop an essential objectivity in my decision-making, while never abandoning empathic identification with my mom or the deep bonds of filial love and obligation. The Church helped me to see what was happening, but also what should happen if my mother’s death was to be holy, Christian, and if I was to emerge from this experience with a clear conscience.
During my mother’s final week we prayed and sang and read Scripture to her, especially her favorite psalms. Since she met the conditions of
Canon 844.4, which covers giving the Sacrament of the Sick to non-Catholics, I even asked my pastor to come and anoint her, which he did. Throughout the week we kept close tabs on the hospice staff to make sure they complied with our wishes and hers.
Finally, just moments after my mother died, I raised my hands above my head, looked up and imagined her spirit rising from the room, observing me there. “I hope I made you proud,” I whispered. “I’ll see you in Heaven.” A great peace came over me that confirmed I had given her a departure that was worthy of her baptism, her confession of faith and her final destination. I have the Church to thank for that.
The days that followed were filled with the sundry tasks required for a funeral, burial, notifications, and so on. As always, I took refuge at morning Mass, where the haunting, familiar words of the liturgy took on new meaning: “Remember also our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection and all who have died in your mercy: welcome them into the light of your face.”
My mother had specified a small, private service at a funeral home, followed by the burial. My brothers and I didn’t enlist Protestant clergy since without the Eucharist there really isn’t any need. Instead, we read a psalm and a passage from I Thessalonians. We sang a hymn and offered our eulogies to the small gathering of close family members. Later, at graveside, I felt we needed more, and so I turned again to the Church and prayed the Rite of Committal with Final Commendation, which is authorized for use by the laity.
“Into your hands, Father of mercies, we commend our sister Barbara in the sure and certain hope that, together with all who have died in Christ, she will rise with him on the last day. Merciful Lord, turn toward us and listen to our prayers: open the gates of paradise to your servant and help us who remain to comfort one another with assurances of faith, until we all meet in Christ and are with you and our sister for ever. We ask this through Christ our Lord.”
Once again, the wisdom of the Church revealed itself. The formal, poetic language of the Rite communicated more than my words ever could have, and provided everyone present – Catholic and non-Catholic – with the fitting send-off Barbara Gordon would have wanted. And so, my earthly mother is gone but Holy Mother Church remains, to comfort and console, to teach and to feed, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 31 years and they have two adult children.