Scared to Die

Yesterday, going down the nursing home’s hallway, I finally came up to her room and saw that the door was open. I knocked on the door out of courtesy but no response.  I enter quietly, and I see her there fast asleep.  I made a few attempts at calling her name in order wake her, and she eventually woke up. But she started crying as soon as she woke up.

I have the privilege of visiting nursing homes about once a month. Inspired to do this after doing a week-long service camp last summer, I am part of my parish’s ministry to the sick at nursing homes. We visit Catholic residents at many of the local nursing homes in order to pray with them and to minister the Holy Eucharist to them so that they receive God in Word and Flesh because they normally don’t have opportunities to go to Mass due to their current health situations. I’ve been doing this for about a year now, and just due to the nature of interacting with elderly and sick individuals, the reality of death is very apparent to me. But, on this particular visit to one of my usual residents, the reality of death was not something I, myself, personally related to in a profound way.
In the previous times I’ve interacted with her, she was coherent and very talkative and good-natured.  Sometimes she has short-term memory loss.  In recent reports from my fellow ministry volunteers, it seems as though her health has declined recently. Knowing this ahead of time, I wasn’t sure what to expect upon arriving.
This happens frequently where I stop by a resident’s room only to find them sleeping. And I usually make a few attempts to wake them up, and in her case this time, I was able to wake her. But like I said, she started crying.
I didn’t know what to do but since she’s a talkative one, I kind of waited for her to explain.  She kind of apologized for being a mess because had been crying a lot. And she said, in flowing tears, that she’s scared to die. I didn’t know what to say.
She further explained that she had a choking episode earlier in the morning.  Through this unfortunate experience, she realized she could have died had no one helped her. And after the fact, as I was dealing with this after the fact, the reality of death must have been … totally real to her. 
I’m not gonna lie. I’m sensitive to death. And I nearly started tearing up out of sympathy for her because that’s a certain kind of suffering that I can’t totally fathom, but I understand. I mean, it’s understandable to be scared to die. But since I’ve grown deeper into my Catholic faith, death for me personally is something less to be scared of, but I know that other people aren’t at peace with the idea.
She went on for a bit expressing her fears, and I tried giving her some comforting gestures like pats on her shoulder and head and that’s okay to be scared. I mentioned earlier that she has some mild short-term memory loss or has a short attention span. Thank goodness though, because I was half-expecting my interactions with her to be me having to listen to her cry for a long while.  But out of nowhere she stops crying and gets distracted by the TV that was on. That led to her noticing the verse of Scripture that someone had banner’d across the top of the wall above the TV:

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Phil 4:13)

She explained that she’s glad that [whoever] had posted that on her wall because it helps her deal with what her fears. I then felt it appropriate to let her know of a quote by St. Augustine.  I only offered it because it’s something that I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately, and it just somehow felt fitting to give her:

…our heart is restless until it rests in You. (from his Confessions)

The way I was understanding her fear of death was that it is out of anxiety and not being at peace with the idea of death. A sort of restlessness.  In my own life right now, I’m terribly restless and have only found peace by resting in God (usually through Adoration of the Holy Eucharist). And it’s been a frequent reflection of mine for a long while now.

She really liked that quote. I’m not sure that she’ll remember it, and I regret not having written it down for her, but I could tell that it did strike a chord with her.

After that, I offered to read her Sunday’s Gospel reading, though I read the shorter version. These were the parables that Jesus told regarding the rejoicing of finding the lost sheep as well as the woman who lost one of her coins and rejoiced after she diligently searched for it and found it. Since I read the shorter version of Sunday’s Gospel reading, it didn’t include the fan favorite: the parable of the prodigal son.  She really liked hearing the Gospel that I read, and she even offered her own personal reflection (briefly) from the reading.

And we kind of got back into the conversation of being scared to die. To which I then asked her if she wanted to receive the Eucharist (because she sometimes doesn’t).  She was a little hesitant because she let me know that she wanted to go to Confession as well.  Haha, she actually asked me if I could hear her confession, but I told her that I can’t do that since I’m not a priest, but I offered to have a priest come visit her at some point sometime soon.  She very much liked that idea.

She ultimately decided to receive Jesus in the Eucharist because she felt that it would help her deal with her restlessness and fear regarding death.  So after humbly obliging to rinsing out her dentures at her request so that she could talk better and eat better, I was able to minister the Eucharist to her.

After she received the Eucharist, she was just incredibly grateful for my visit.  And she was just really grateful for us praying together and her receiving the Eucharist. By that point, I had to leave to go visit other residents, and I assured her that I would continue praying for her and that I would call our parish office to have a priest come by and visit to hear her confession.

I left her room feeling really grateful myself for having had this opportunity.  This was my first time talking about the reality of death with a nursing home resident. They’re usually A) asleep, B) wanting to talk about other things or C) incoherent.  It just seemed really providential that it all worked out this way.

I was thinking just now how this little episode visiting her kind of ties in with this past Sunday’s Gospel. Would a lonesome sheep not be scared that he is separated from the rest? The woman who lost her coin was probably scared because she lost something valuable.  The prodigal son was probably freaking out once he lost everything and was fearful in coming back home.  Yet, as Jesus shows us, there’s much rejoicing to be had whenever the lost has been found.  And when we know this and take it to heart, we have nothing to fear, not even death itself.

I did call my parish earlier today, and a priest will be visiting her soon! 🙂

Her name is Judy. Please pray for her! …that she finds rest and peace in God and that whenever her hour has come, she’s ready to come home.

– JD

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) // Pompeo Batoni, Wikipedia