Have you ever stood by the bed of someone dying of a terminal disease or of old age and, in pain and anger, wondered why death sometimes works the way it does?
Often the question is not only why does this person have to die? Rather the harder question is: Why does this person have to die like this? Why does he or she have to be so humiliated, suffer such great pain, be unable to do even the most basic things for himself or herself, and be reduced to an infantile helplessness—but without the freshness, attractiveness and healthy bodily smells of a baby?
Why is death so often shrouded in pain, humiliation, helplessness and groaning?
Death is partly mystery and so there can be np full answer to these questions. Yet faith, and experience, can help us somewhat. Allow me to share a personal story:
Recently, I watched my own sister die of cancer. From the time she was first diagnosed until she died almost exactly five years later, the cancer did its slow deadly work. Beyond the ravages of the disease itself there were operations that mutilated her body and treatments that sapped her energy and slowly killed her mind and spirit as well.
We, her family, and many others too who loved her, stood around helplessly, frustrated, offering what scant support and consolation we could.
Finally, in the last weeks, the disease and the drugs needed to kill the pain took over completely and she was reduced to a shell of her former self, utterly helpless, unable to take care of even her most elementary bodily needs, unable even to speak.
She was literally reduced to a baby, not just in her own helplessness but also in the way we all, inadvertently, treated her… feeding her as we would a baby, speaking condescendingly to her as we would to a child, and trying to coax a smile or a laugh out of her and then congratulating her and ourselves when we succeeded. And all this time, she was sinking ever more deeply into a pain that even the strongest drugs could no longer make bearable.
Watching all of this, at one stage, all of us around her began to feel both bewildered and angry. Why? Why is an adult, a beautiful healthy woman, reduced to this? Why such helplessness and humiliation—not even to mention pain?
A baby, at least, in such helplessness speaks of development and its very smells are healthy. An adult, in such a state, speaks only of disease and disintegration.
But at a point there was also a partial answer, one that surprised us and which came from her very pain and humiliation itself. Someone had just coaxed a timid smile out of her and we were struck at how much like a baby she had become.
In my own anger at this, I suddenly realized something: She was about to be reborn. How fitting that she should again be a baby! The image fit, except for one thing, her great pain. Why such pain in a baby that is about to be born?
Then something else became clear: Dying like this, she was both baby and mother. Her groans were those of a mother in labor. She was both giving birth and being born. This latter element, of partially being mother in her own birth, was even more strongly borne out during the last 20 hours before she died.
During those hours she went into a coma. She withdrew from us and was engaged in some struggle that was now more private and more extreme. Her breathing became very heavy and labored and she literally groaned and moaned as she struggled to let go, to give birth and be born all at the same time.
At this point, none of us present thought any more of her helplessness, her lost health, her lost beauty, her humiliation, nor, indeed, even very much about her pain and impending death. We could only think of labor pains… her struggle to give birth even as she herself was the child about to be born.
I have often heard talk, after the birth of a child, of the mother being in labor for a number of hours—”She was in labor for 14 hours!” Having never actually witnessed a birth, I have not been clear as to exactly what that meant.
I think, now, that I have some idea. My sister was in labor for 20 hours before she gave herself (and was given) final birth. Some women friends of mine have also shared with me that, when they were giving birth, they were in excruciating pain right up to the second of birth. Immediately afterwards there was a certain ecstasy.
I can only imagine and suggest that this is also what happened to my sister when she died… and is what happens to millions and millions of others who suffer and die in this way.
(Next week—a further reflection on how this type of death parallels the death of Christ.)