A Tale of Two Patients

When your life has run its course, how do you wish to face your death?

The question of mortality hit home today as I made my weekly pastoral care rounds at the hospital. The last two patients on my list were, for very different reasons, some of the most difficult patient encounters I’ve ever experienced.

The first was a woman dying of cancer. Her life support had been removed the day before, and she was simply awaiting the inevitable. She was barely conscious; she couldn’t speak, but she clearly understood what was being said to her, and she could move a little bit and turn her head toward the person speaking to her.

As I entered the room, her three daughters were gathering around the bed. I introduced myself as a lay minister with the Catholic chaplain’s office, and was greeted with heart-wrenching deference, and a simple request: The daughters wanted me to assure their mother that it was OK to die.

I spent about 20 minutes with the patient and her daughters, most of it in impromptu spiritual counseling about death. I held the patient’s hand and assured her that her children were going to be OK, that she didn’t need to worry about them any longer. I had to console weeping women who so loved their mother that they wanted nothing more than that she be free of the pain that had been wracking her body for a very long time. I had to offer prayers for a not-quite-death — supplications that offered hope in a time of great sadness.

But sometimes pastoral-care visits in a hospital will yield emotionally draining encounters. What struck me about this one was my sense (based on the conversation) that the patient’s unwillingness to die was rooted in a desperate fear of things left undone.

That experience was put in stark contrast by my next patient. I spent about 45 minutes with an 82-year-old veteran who was about to be discharged. His tranquility and his sense of gratitude about all the things he experienced in his life — as a bomber pilot in three wars, a father, a semi-pro athlete — were inspiring. He was absolutely at peace with the prospect of his own mortality; he told me he was blessed to have had so many wonderful experiences and that he had absolutely no regrets. He was ready to go, even though his hospitalization was not the end of his road. His serenity was a gut-check to my own occasional unease at my advancing age.

For myself, the experience of watching my grandfather’s terminal illness and eventual death inspired a single goal: To live a life so full, that when I arise on my 70th birthday, I can look in the mirror and honestly tell myself that I have no real regrets, nothing left undone or unsaid. Days like today reinforce that goal.

I will pray for my patients. I will also give thanks for what they’ve taught to me in the twilight of their days.

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