November 19, 2021

Be Our Guest / Ann Margaret Lewis

Love and a Catholic way of dying

Ann Margaret LewisThe second Sunday of September of 2008, Mom called me to say, “Ann, I’m turning yellow.”

My mother, Mary Ann Goetz, had had her gall bladder removed two weeks before. Although 80, she’d weathered that procedure with flying colors, impressing the medical staff with her stamina.

Yet something was wrong.

A few days later, we learned Mom had a cancerous pancreatic tumor and only months to live.

Despite the diagnosis, Mom wanted chemo. However, after several weeks of trying to increase her strength for the treatment, my seven siblings and I realized we had to prepare for the inevitable and help her approach death with hope.

November 17 marked the 13-year anniversary of her death. At this time of year, when Christians celebrate our beloved dead and the mystery of eternal life, I want to share one of the most difficult—and rewarding—events of my life and some tips that I learned along the way about the Catholic way of dying.

Working as a team

When managing a situation like this, it’s always best that a family come together and communicate to make the process easier.

My dad died of cancer in 1980, and Mom raised those of us who remained home herself. Now we were scattered across the country from Alaska to New Jersey. Only two siblings lived near Mom.

Every Sunday evening, we held a conference call to determine what needed to be done and establish a schedule for each of us to care for her. With each of her children taking turns, the burden was lighter, especially for those who lived near Mom who had been carrying most of the load.

Necessary evils: legal and business issues

We realized we had to clear up business and legal issues so Mom didn’t have that additional stress. My mother had little money—only possessions really, furniture and mementos—but we wanted Mom’s wishes on these things made clear so there would be no contention.

My eldest sister Theresa brought up a will. “Mom,” she said, “just in case things don’t go well, we should get all your paperwork in order.” How hard it was to begin that conversation! But in the end, we were able to respect Mom’s wishes and there was little disagreement over who got what when Mom passed.

Even more important was managing her medical care. When one is faced with a terminal illness, hospitals ask for an advance directive. Advance directives, sometimes called “living wills,” specify the type of care a patient wants to receive should they become unable to voice their wishes.

However, advance directives can also be misinterpreted by medical staff, creating decisions that go against Catholic teaching on life issues. Also, advance directives are not as flexible as having a medical (or durable) power of attorney—an individual who knows the patient’s wishes and values and who can make decisions in an instant if the patient is unable to do so.

That’s why, instead of using an advance directive, the National Catholic Bioethics Center recommends that Catholics arrange a medical power of attorney. This executor should discuss with the patient ahead of time what their wishes are under certain medical circumstances so they can best speak for the patient should the need arise. My sister Theresa volunteered for this position because she lived nearest to my mother.

Caring for the soul

Through his death on the cross, Christ destroyed death and enabled us to accept grace through the Church and her sacraments. The best way to prepare our ailing loved ones for the “inevitable,” then, is through these same means.

We made certain, therefore, that our mother had regular access to anointing of the sick, the Eucharist and spiritual support from her priest.

When she passed into a coma, we prayed the rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet at her bedside, and I placed her brown scapular I’d found in her jewelry box around her neck.

We did our best to manage Mom’s pain with medication. There was still some suffering on her part, but I took solace in our Catholic faith, which teaches that suffering unites us with Christ on the cross for the good of our soul. Any pain my mom finally endured, therefore, was not worthless. It enabled her to cling to Christ for strength and become “as a little child” to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

We chose a Catholic hospice service for Mom in her final days so she might die peacefully at home. Its staff offered wonderful guidance and spiritual assistance. Also, friends and family arranged for Masses to be said for her during her final days and after her passing to further care for her soul.

The value of life to the end

Another important focus in this situation is showing a person their own value and maintaining their dignity as they approach their end. I know with my mother this was a bit of a trial.

Four days before her death she grew upset.

“I am not strong enough,” she said. I knew she meant she could not handle the pain and her inability to care for herself. She’d always been proud, healthy and independent, so this was an immense struggle for her.

I said, “Mom, you have to make yourself strong in here.” I tapped her chest.

“I don’t know how to do that,” she said.

“Yes, you do, Mom. You pray,” I said and placed her rosary in her hand.

I believe I was meant to be there for that moment. She needed to hear this. After that, she did not fret her discomfort as much as our having to care for her. My second-eldest sister Karen, a registered nurse, reassured her that it was an honor to care for her, and I pointed out what a gift my mother had given to the world in my sister, a wonderful nurse.

Mom cried. Karen and I cried. But Mom knew how much her life was valued. Before this, she had refused to let us feed her, insisting that she lift her own spoon though she was too weak. Now, she finally allowed me to feed her oatmeal with raisins. She smiled and said it was delicious. She had become a little child again.

Mom finally passed into a peaceful coma and released her final breath just as her children began to pray the rosary at her bedside. She died as I hope to die—loved, and perfectly prepared to meet our Redeemer.

The Catholic way of dying

Through communicating with each other, handling the business and legal necessities together while Mom was still able to have such conversations, praying and caring for her spiritual welfare through the Church and the sacraments, and ensuring her of the value of her life to the end, my family was able to handle my mother’s passing well because of a treasure of Catholic resources.

We grieved, of course, but were at peace with the great love and reverence we’d shared for this wonderful woman who had given us life.
 

(Ann Margaret Lewis is a member of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove and the executive assistant to the director of communications for the archdiocese. For more information on handling end of life issues, visit the archdiocesan Office of Human Life and Dignity resource page at: cutt.ly/EndofLifeResources.)

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