So far in my life I have not had many occasions to be close to dying friends and their families, though that will surely increase through the coming years. Five years ago a friend was in her mid-thirties when lung cancer was detected late in pregnancy. She and her husband were valiant throughout, enduring with parents and siblings as they faced the disease, struggling to care for each other and for the baby. It was impossible during that time to believe that grief could become joy.
As the months went on it became clear my friend would not live to see her daughter’s first birthday. Just before my visit at the end, I was given a copy of Henri Nouwen’s book, Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring.
Nouwen’s reflections helped in the days and months that followed. He reminded me that Jesus tried to help his friends understand that his dying was not just inevitable, but good would come because his dying would enable him to send his Spirit. To both live and die like Jesus means that our spirit, too, will be sent to our loved ones after death.
“Not only the death of Jesus, but our death, too, is destined to be good for others. Not only the death of Jesus, but our death, too, is meant to bear fruit in other people’s lives. Not only the death of Jesus, but our death, too, will bring the Spirit of God to those we leave behind” (p. 37).
Unlike the recent death of a 75-year-old friend when we were able to celebrate as we grieved the end of his full life, well-lived, the grief I experienced following a young new mother’s early death has not become joy. Mindful of St. Ignatius’ Principle and Foundation, whether we are wealthy or poor, ill or well, live a long or short life, God reaches out to draw us closer through every aspect of our lives. In that spirit, I am aware of a profound gratitude for all the good that has come into my life because of the journeys I was privileged to share with my friends.
Nouwen asks: “Isn’t ‘sending the Spirit’ the best expression for not leaving those you love alone but offering them a new bond, deeper than the bond that existed in life? Doesn’t ‘dying for others’ mean dying so that others
can continue to live, strengthened by the Spirit of our love?” . . . The real
question before our death, then is not, How much can I still accomplish, or How much influence can I still exert? but, How can I live so that I can continue to be fruitful when I am no longer here among my family and friends?
That question shifts our attention from doing to being. Our doing brings success, but our being bears fruit” (pp. 37–41).
In this season celebrating the mystery of Paschal joy, in my dying as well as my living, how might I shift my attention from “doing” to “being”?