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A letter to a dying man

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What could I say to a man of faith whose days were numbered?

A dear but distant friend let me know some weeks back that her dad had been placed in hospice care and that the end was imminent. My friend was raised Catholic but is now an atheist, and I sorrowed over the extra weight she was carrying in facing the end of her dad’s earthly life.

In addition to expressing my closeness to her, I felt that I should reach out to her dad, a man I’d met maybe once or twice and only briefly, but who was important to me as the father of someone important to me. My friend assured me that he’d received Anointing of the Sick and had friends bringing him Communion, so I knew I didn’t “need” to say anything … but I wanted to.

I started mulling over what I could write to this relative stranger who was dying, but I didn’t come up with anything. I searched through my greeting cards with saint quotes, and came across one that could give me a start, but I wanted to add my own words, and say something more than just, “Hey, I’m praying for you.”

Days passed and I knew that my time was running short. And then, a few words came — simple thoughts — through an experience with my young daughter.

So this is what I wrote:

Dear Mr. XX,

The other day, I was sitting on the couch with my 4-year-old and for some reason we were talking about dying and Heaven. (We perhaps talk about dying more often than other young families, since Mom lives with us and we’re always remembering Grandpa Billy in Heaven. And plus, she [my daughter] was on one of those kicks that little kids get on, abruptly fascinated by some theme or another for a day or two, and then just as suddenly back to being oblivious to it, as before.)

Anyway, I said to my little one something that I’m sure I’ve said many times already in some form or another: “Yes honey, when you die, then you’ll see Jesus.”

She looked at me intently, pausing, and then said slowly, with seriousness, “You mean we’ll actually see his face?”

You raised many kids, so you probably well remember the kind of facial expression and tone of voice that young children take on, when all of a sudden they are picking up some piece of information, considering it deeply for the first time, understanding it, doubting or accepting it, making it a part of their own awareness and grasp of the world. Learning.

That’s what she was doing with my response. Wrapping her intellect and her imagination around it. Probably painting a mental picture of herself and Our Lord, physically together, as she examined his face.

What a gift our faith is, isn’t it?

I imagine it was for you what it has been for me, this sharing of my faith with my young children. It brings the exhilaration that comes from giving a gift you know to be so valuable, so perfect for the receiver.

But it also “gives back” in another way. As the words come out of my mouth, and as I experience them freshly because I’m experiencing them through the freshness of the kids’ experience, they hit me again as if it were the first time.

Why, yes… yes, yes indeed. We shall see his face. We shall …

How can I, like my daughter, not sit with that, pause, imagine, doubt and yet accept? Delight in it. Long for it.

Your daughter tells me that friends from the church have been bringing you Communion and I know you’ve been Anointed for your journey. I just wanted you to know that we’re praying for you too.

Have you read the Last Testament from Benedict XVI? I’ve been reading it and loving it.

Here’s a section:

Q: The believer trusts that ‘eternal life’ is a life fulfilled.

Benedict: Definitely! Then he is truly at home.

Q: What are you expecting?

Benedict: There are various dimensions. Some are more theological. St. Augustine says something which is a great thought and a great comfort here. He interprets the passage from the Psalms ‘seek his face always’ as saying: this applies ‘for ever’; to all eternity. God is so great that we never finish our searching. He is always new. With God there is perpetual, unending encounter, with new discoveries and new joy. Such things are theological matters. At the same time, in an entirely human perspective, I look forward to being reunited with my parents, my siblings, my friends, and I imagine it will be as lovely as it was at our family home.

With love and prayers.

More to read: 21 Regrets people confess on their deathbeds

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