October 30, 2015

Faith and Family / Sean Gallagher

Caring for the sick and dying is a ‘two-way street’

Sean GallagherIt’s natural for us to think that serving the sick and dying is a one-way street. We fulfill their physical, emotional and spiritual needs, and they simply receive that care.

A broad and growing swath of our society has this care as its purpose. It is carried out in our proliferating hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, imaging and testing centers, and medical practice offices.

But, if we are open to the possibility, people who are sick or dying have much to give us simply in the witness of how they bear their burdens. This is an important reality to make a part of our lives—and of society as a whole—as we live in a utilitarian culture where people’s worth is measured according to their perceived productivity.

And this isn’t just a matter of being nice to others. For the people who live on the margins of such a culture—unborn babies, young children, people with disabilities, the aged, sick and dying, especially among the poor—it can be a matter of life or death.

For Christians, seeing the good and the God-given dignity in the sick and dying is at the root of the Gospel. Christ gave great care and attention not just to ill people in general, but sometimes especially to those, such as lepers, who were marginalized because of their affliction.

In Matthew 25, Jesus actually identified himself with the sick, one of the “least ones” who were cared for by those who were subsequently welcomed into the kingdom of the Son of Man.

Christians throughout history have taken seriously Christ’s word and example regarding the sick and dying. Many today do so in countless faith-based hospitals and other medical ministries here in Indiana and around the world.

In a mysterious paradox, Christ also touchingly lives in his followers when they are dying. After all, the mission of Christ’s life on Earth came to a climax in his own tortuous passion and death, an experience that gave meaning to all human suffering.

I encountered such a holy death recently in the days leading up to the passing of my mother, Debbi Gallagher, on Oct. 17, after her long struggle with non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver.

The peace with which she accepted the inevitability of death truly showed forth Christ to her friends and loved ones. She also demonstrated the life of Christ in her last days in the love she showed to us in our final visits with her.

It was also a profound experience of faith for me to see the Christ-like care that my father, sister and wife gave to Mom in her final days. The blessings of caring for the sick and dying really do run on a two-way street.

Mom would be on my heart and mind a good bit no matter when she died. The fact that her death came close to the start of November, however, is especially meaningful for me. This is the month when the Church gives special attention to the faithful departed.

Celebrating All Saints Day and All Souls Day at the start of the month can inspire us to honor and seek to emulate the good example of the faithful who have died before us.

With the help of God’s grace, I will try to do this with Mom, whom I believe now shines with the saints in glory. †

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