Looking Death In The Eye

Exactly six years ago, I finally became cognizant of how thin the line between life and death really is when I nearly lost one of my daughters as she struggled to give birth. During labour, she almost bled out when she lost a litre of blood in mere seconds after an emergency C-section, the result of a series of unforeseen complications, a one-in-ten-thousand chance.

Of course, in a large teaching hospital with an excellent Maternity Ward, an emergency team of no less than ten people descended on her in the recovery room, whipped off the sheets and even her nightgown which upset her husband. He had to be told why she was naked with doors and curtains around her bed left wide open on a public hallway. Life comes before propriety. No one stops to close a door when a life is at stake.  Her doctor waited at the hospital while we drove an hour into town so he could personally explain to us her brush with death.

An hour later, I gazed down at my daughter’s limp form, as a tear trickled down her pale face. She whispered, “I felt myself slipping away.” The veil separating life from death is thin, indeed. My daughter knew she was dying. Years ago she would have died. Even today, in the third world, she would have most certainly died. She was so weak after this near-death experience that her husband had to carry her to the washroom, and the nurse supported her new son’s weight as he nursed.

Life is precarious. Life is fragile.

The process of birthing is similar to the process of dying because in both cases, a person must give up control completely and allow a force of nature stronger than themselves take over.  I admit, every time I gave birth, there was a moment of panic, terror really, during the transition period when I had to completely surrender even though I was in excruciating pain. Giving birth and dying are not that different.Life and death are not as far apart as I had once presumed but this is no longer a depressing thought.

Looking Death In The Eye

An encounter with death shook me to my core last year. One of my husband’s athletic younger brothers, Mark, lay dying of cancer. The day before his death, he had been semi-conscious but unable to speak as a priest administered the Last Rites. While the priest led the family in prayer, Mark looked extremely self-conscious, hard, and even angry. It seemed like he was still rejecting grace. Unbeknownst to me, the grace of that last Sacrament was working in my brother-in-law as the priest prayed over him:

Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit,
who was poured out upon you.
Go forth, faithful Christian! May you live in peace this day,
may your home be with God in Zion,
. . . .May you return to [your Creator]. – CCC, n. 1020

The next day, I was finally alone with Mark, sitting beside his narrow bed with the sound of ragged breathing filling the hospital room. It felt eerie, unnerving even because he was now in a cancer-induced coma. Hours before death, his tanned, chiseled face was propped up by white pillows, a dramatic testament to the rough life he had embraced as the self-proclaimed black sheep of his religious family. Since he was unconscious and he could not interact in a normal manner, I decided to pray right into his inner spirit:

Mark, I call your spirit to attention and invite you to turn to your Heavenly Father because He created you, called you by name, and now welcomes you home again with outstretched arms. His Mercy is boundless. God sees you exactly as you are; He knows all your sins yet still loves you. The moment you turn to God in repentance, He will embrace you as His son.

I opened my eyes and my heart started pounding because Mark’s eyes were wide open. Even though brain cancer had left him comatose, he was looking right at me with intelligence. His gaze was not that of a jaded adult but like a child who was vulnerable and afraid of the unknown. His eyes seemed to plead with me. This brief glimpse into that man’s inner spirit is seared in my mind.

Flustered, I did not know how to respond, so I simply closed my eyes and continued praying. When I dared open my eyes again, my brother-in-law had slipped back into a coma but, this time, I was filled with joy. There was a tangible presence of peace in the room. I knew he had turned his face towards God and his spirit was forever connected to mine in the Mystical Body of Christ.

The Other Side of the Veil

Death itself is final in that the soul has left the body, not to rejoin it until the Second Coming. For many people, it feels like there is an impenetrable wall between themselves and those who have died, most probably because they cannot see the dead with their own eyes.

Yet death does not end our relationship with the deceased because those who have passed on are not lost to us. The veil between the living and the dead is thin when we are part of the Mystical Body of Christ. This might sound like a pious phrase memorized and repeated to offer shallow comfort to the grieving. However, Christians have the ability to communicate with each other in prayer when we are rooted in Christ. This is the communion of the saints who are alive in Christ in heaven, which we declare we believe in every time we repeat the Creed.

When Jesus speaks about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Gospels, he explains that the Father “is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living” (Matt. 22:32). Luke adds, “He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him” (Luke 20:38). Abraham is alive in heaven and can communicate with the rich man. Furthermore, the saints and angels see and hear what we say and pray; they are alive in God and intercede for us.

Even though the Catholic Church teaches us about our relationship with those who have died in Christ, people fail to grasp this truth and then actually live it out in prayer. When we do learn how to pray for and relate to those in purgatory and in heaven, a whole new heavenly world opens up to us. My husband and I “see and hear” those in purgatory we pray for and sense their gratitude and joy.

The Fear of Death

Death is usually avoided in our modern society.  Most fear death and do not know how to prepare to die. Bishop Barron, in his reflections on John 11:1-45, addresses this fear of death:

[D]eath as we experience it—as something fearful, horrible, terrifying . . . comes from having turned from God and is a sign of spiritual dysfunction. The story of Lazarus represents someone who is totally sunk in sin, totally dead spiritually. The voice of Jesus calls Lazarus, and all of us, back to life no matter what we’ve done, no matter how dead we are.

It is precisely during the important process of dying that God often manages to pierce through people’s wounds and the walls they have built to shut out His love. God tries to lead people who are dying back into His heart.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us the  real meaning of a Christian death:

Death is transformed by Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, also himself suffered the death that is part of the human condition. Yet, despite his anguish as he faced death, he accepted it in an act of complete and free submission to his Father’s will. The obedience of Jesus has transformed the curse of death into a blessing. Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” . . . In death, God calls man to himself. Therefore the Christian can experience a desire for death like St. Paul’s: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ. “. . . I am not dying; I am entering life. – CCC, n. 1009-1011

For a Christian, death is not the end but the beginning.

My Father Was Dying

I faced death once again in western Canada, three-time zones away from my husband, nine children, and seven grandchildren with my eighty-four-year-old father who was dying, slowly fading away. At 132 lb, he was a shadow of his former self, staying in bed in a dim room with his eyes closed for 23 hours a day. Perhaps he was giving up on life because he was deaf, almost blind from macular degeneration, and was in pain all over, making even swallowing is difficult. Although he was not fighting to live, he was afraid of death, of the unknown.

My father’s family left the Church after the tragic death of his mother when he was just nine years old. Even though he faced tragedy after tragedy during his life, almost always due to the failings of others, he remained an honest, good, kind man, even when living with integrity meant he suffered financial setbacks. He faithfully loved only one woman for sixty-three years, giving his all to raise his family. He was not an outwardly religious man and did not speak of his faith, so my Evangelical sister was frantic that he might not be saved. As for me, when I prayed for my dad, I experienced pain, tears, and joy all at the same time while entrusting him to the Mercy of God. I had to let go and surrender once again.

The Church prays that no one should be lost: “Lord, let me never be parted from you.” If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4), and that for him “all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). – CCC, n. 1058

I had an inner sense Christ would reveal Himself to my father, perhaps at the instant before death when my dad would be free enough from childhood wounds to see and choose eternal life. God comforted me with a recurring inner vision which never fails to bring tears to my eyes.  My father is walking towards Christ who is surrounded by a semi-circle of saints clothed in white, all smiling with their arms outstretched. His mother, who died in the 1940s,  steps forward as a young woman dressed in 1940’s style clothes and reaches out to embrace her son. As my dad walks closer to heaven, he slowly stands more erect, grows younger and younger and begins to smile.

When my father died, I didn’t have to say goodbye but just whispered a prayerful hello as I let go of our earthly relationship and embraced a new, invisible relationship with him. God mysteriously unites all of us and I know from experience there is neither time nor distance when we live and move and breathe in the Spirit. Life and death are not as far apart as I had once presumed.

Humans are intimately connected not just to God and the living but also to those who have died and are alive in Christ after recent encounters with birth, death, and dying. There is only a thin veil between heaven and earth; I can communicate with all who abide in the Mystical Body of Christ simply because I am a member of the communion of saints.


2 thoughts on “Looking Death In The Eye

  1. Melanie, your post took me on a journey this morning. Through your words, I ‘met’ many memories and thoughts and fears.

    Many years ago, God placed me in vigil beside someone so precious to me in his final hours. It was as just as you described. I saw the fear and the hurt and the anger that God was calling him and not allowing him to remain with us. I hadn’t known then that he was going to go. It never occurred to me. A strange stillness and obedience had taken hold of me. It stood like a sentry at the door to my thoughts and feelings, allowing no distraction near me. My husband and I were led to pray the Rosary aloud, and we prayed it all through the thrashing and agitation and screams.

    The moment the Rosary ended, so did this precious one’s anguish. Peace took its place.

    It’s been so long since that day. I’m comforted that we were led to pray the Rosary and that we obeyed. It would have been so hard to continue living had we not prayed in those final minutes.


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