On Her Deathbed
"I fear that there is nothing on the other side."
This from a correspondent:
My grandmother is on her deathbed. My mother flew out to Boston to be there with her when she dies. Of course my grandmother is putting up a good fight; however, they expected her to die yesterday. My mother had a conversation with her while she was lucid. She asked her, “Why are you fighting so hard? Do you fear something?”
My grandmother’s reply, “I fear that there is nothing on the other side.” Here is a woman who has spent eighty nine years of her life devoting herself to the [Catholic] church and her family. Now, when it comes down to death she is clinging on because her entire life is behind her and the only thing that she faces in front of her is the uncertainty of whether there is a heaven awaiting her in the coming days.
If you were there at my grandmother’s deathbed and she conveyed to you her fears, what would you tell her?
I'm a philosopher, not a pastor, and what a dying non-philosopher needs is pastoral care, not philosophical dialog. But if I were to play the pastor I would say something along the following lines.
"You have lived your long life faithfully and devotedly in the embrace of Holy Mother the Church. She has presided over central events in your life, your baptism, first communion, confirmation, and your marriage. She has provided guidance, moral instruction, comfort, and community as you have navigated life's difficulties and disappointments. She provided meaning and solace when your parents died, and your husband, and your many friends and relatives. If your faith was a living faith and not a convenience or a matter of social conformity, then from time to time you had your doubts. But through prayer and reflection you have repeatedly reaffirmed your faith. Your faith was made deeper and truer by those doubts and their overcoming."
"I ask you now to recall those moments of calm reflection and existential lucidity, those moments when you were at your best physically, mentally, and spiritually. I ask you to recall them, and above all I ask you not to betray them now when you are weak. Do not allow the decisions and resolutions of your finest and and clearest hours to be taken hostage by doubts and fears born of weakness. Your weakness has called forth the most vicious attacks of the Adversary and his agents. You have lived in the faith and now you must remain true to a course of life judged right at the height of your powers. Your doubts are of the devil and they must be put aside. Pray, and remain true to a course judged right."
So that is what I would say to the old Irish Catholic woman on her deathbed. I would exhort her to remain true to a course judged right in the moments of her highest existential lucidity and to bring her life to a successful completion. The hour of death is not the time to grapple with the devil of doubt!
To myself and the others for whom the hora mortis is still a ways off, to those in the sunshine of their strength, physical and mental, I say the following. Now is the time to wrestle with doubts and either defeat them or succumb to them. Now is the time to get serious about The Last Things. It is far better to get serious about them before they get serious about you. Now is the time to face the reality of death without evasion and to prepare for a happy death. Now is the time to realize that you don't have all the time in the world, that as the Zen Master Dogen says, "Impermanence is swift." Now is the time to stop fooling yourself about how you are going to live forever.
For "What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." (James 3, 14)