My family has never been one to shy away from talking about death. A number of factors contributed to that being a normal part of the fabric of our family, and my late husband used to have something he would say regularly. He would reference his wishes for his eventual death by saying, “I hope I don’t get really old or sick, I want to be walking around in my house one day and my heart will just explode.”
That memory was quite vivid in my mind as the Medical Examiner explained his death to me and my daughter, because within a very narrow margin, he got his wish. I remember thinking that I would have preferred that he had focused more on the “world peace,” “cure for cancer,” or even “win the lotto” wishes more than this one. In the end, though, his speaking of it eventually brought us solace when we remembered how he had expressed his hopes for his own death.
I am told, however, that many families don’t speak much of death—either ones form the past or their own deaths in the future.
I believe that our Catholic faith can help us have a very healthy attitude about death. We can learn about others who died before us when we learn of the Saints, and we can continue to work out our salvation as we stay mindful (but not obsessive) of the fact that our own earthly lives are finite. I find Ash Wednesday, with its sobering words of, “remember man that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” a helpful and meaningful ritual. I really enjoy the conversations that spring up along the day with people who remark about my ashes.
In Healthcare, we can often see agonizing situations result when people don’t know what their loved ones wishes were before the person loses the capacity to communicate. There are documents and processes that have been developed to assist in these circumstances, but those documents are most useful when the topic has been discussed openly in detail within families.
How do you open up a conversation about this and when? I suggest “the sooner the better” as I surely didn’t expect a health crisis that would leave me a widow at 47.
It is a misconception that a “Directive” of any sort can only be used to tell Doctors to stop or limit care. I have heard that this sometimes frightens Catholics away from creating these documents. In reality, if you wish, you can use an “Advance Directive” to insure that you are cared for in a manner consistent with Catholic teaching. Any of these documents is your tool, with the most important goal of making your wishes become known so that they can best be followed.
Which of these will communicate your desires to have your end-of-life decisions made consistent with Catholic guidelines?
I am an enthusiastic advocate of every Catholic making him- or herself familiar with this document: US Conference of Catholic Bishops Ethical and Religious Directives for Healthcare
There are also other helpful online sites that can give us reliable resources: this EWTN site has a printable Health Care Proxy and Advance Directive at the bottom.
When in doubt about something, please consider using this site (or working with a Priest or Deacon who may be advising your family) on areas of concern: National Catholic Bioethics Center.
Our Catholic faith does a wonderful job of helping us value life at its start, during the time we live it and nurturing it to a natural end, consistently respectful of the dignity God gave us. The Church assists us with guidelines that create healthy boundaries for us when we might be lost in crisis or confused. Please be familiar with what is here for you so that your family can best prepare for the physical and spiritual challenges that come with end of life.
My encouragement in this article is to start a conversation with your family about your wishes, and right here is a good place to start. I humbly acknowledge that experts may visit here and have wisdom and expertise to share. Please know I welcome conversation and enlightenment on this topic as a whole.