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Catholic Spiritual Direction

Spiritual Guidance through the Dying

Last month, my sister alerted all five siblings that the end was very near for our 81-year-old mother. She’s been in a nursing home iStock_000019971857_Smallfor a year, but was hospitalized with renal and congestive heart failure among other maladies. I was on a plane the next day, and for six days, was at her bedside. She pulled through and returned to the nursing home.

Many have been through the long goodbye awaiting death. I don’t question why God is dallying.  His timing is perfect and it is not my mother’s time–yet. But it will come eventually as it will come surely for us all.  We all have the knowledge but not always the realization that we are all dying, day by day. And living. It is how we are living that matters and facing death can help us to do it better.

I am not prone to tears but I have my moments. It will seem trite for me to share here that when I bring a family dog in to be put to sleep, I always cry. I don’t want to, and I give myself pep talks to just get on with it and don’t cry, but I always do. We usually have two dogs at a time and we’ve had many over the years, often getting them when they are adults, so I’ve been through this routine several times.  Once the dogs are gone, I’m fine. Only those moments before they will cease to exist give me trouble. It is the spark of life I am crying for; my dearly beloved pet that will soon lose that spark within minutes. It is the spark that makes atheism illogical for it cannot be manufactured in a laboratory or evolved into existence.

In humans, the spark leaves the human body as an eternal flame. We know this in theory, but on a day-to-day basis most of us are in denial. Why else is it so easy to live badly at times?  But at the beside of the dying, denial fades as we embrace a life preparing to leave. We see clearly that time is fleeting; that all the pretty dresses, beautiful collections, worries and mundane cares of the world, matter for nothing. With my mother’s physical beauty faded, it is only her inner beauty that remains. In her, we more readily measure our own lives. Our ties to shallow things loosen as we evaluate what is of value and what is not.

Just as my mother once taught us to pray and sought to lead us to God, she continues to lead us. She waits at the threshold of death with us at her side. You cannot get that close without peering in, knowing she will soon cross over from this world to the next.

In getting to know death, we sort out life. Our vision of the important things becomes 20/20 as we mesh our memories with Mom up against our own family lives. She guides us to live better until which time we will follow her.

Through this process, I have thought of Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins, a church in Rome, Italy. I first learned of it through a homily at Mass. The church has a crypt, that contains the skeletal remains of 4,000 Capuchin friars. A plaque in one of the chapels reads, in three languages, “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”  The order insists that the display is simply a silent reminder of the swift passage of life on Earth and our own mortality.

I think I would find this Church somewhat disturbing, not because of all the skeletons but because of the undeniable truth that is presented so starkly. I strive to live for eternity, yet on a moment-to-moment basis, I am apt to forget eternity and think only of today while harboring a presumption of tomorrow.

I need to be reminded of the truth on a regular basis. Holding vigil with my mother serves as such a reminder. I’ve heard many people describe their loved ones slipping from this world unto the next as being a beautiful moment.  It’s beautiful because God has made it so and it is only scary when we deny and run from it. So, my mother helps my siblings and me not to run, but to sit awhile and visit; to visit with her, to visit with God, and to visit with ourselves.

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About Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. Her newest books are: Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families, a collection of stories to inspire family love, and Dear God, I Don't Get It and the sequel, Dear God, You Can't Be Serious, children's fiction that feeds the soul through a fun and exciting story. Facebook. Family website. My blog. Twitter.

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  • Hannah T

    This a beautiful remainder for all of us, Mrs. Patti.  Life is fleeting, but the Soul is eternal.  I find the thought of leaving this world and entering the next an exciting prospect.  One day…

    • THERESAEVENBLY

      me too!

  • LizEst

    Patti,  I will keep you in prayer.  It is difficult for those who cannot be at bedside constantly.  A person can feel as though they cannot do much from a distance.  Isn’t it wonderful that God has given us the vehicle of prayer to allow us to help in this way?

    Treasure these moments…and lift up your sister who is shouldering the day to day support, as well.  Keep the faith!

    • Patti Maguire Armstrong

      Thanks for the prayers, Liz. My sister Colleen who you mentioned,  is the one who especially needs them. She lives near my parents, works full time and takes care of both my mom–daily–and my 87-yr old Dad still living at home. She just had a cancerous growth removed from her elbow, so that is slowing her down a little. 

      • LizEst

        Wow!  My prayers for your sister, your mother and father, and all your family as well.

  • THERESAEVENBLY

    Patti,  my heart goes out to you.   My father was in the hospital Sept – November before passing on.  In July, one of my girlfriends had shared with me her daily devotion to the dying, lifting them up in prayer.  So I began adding those devotions to my daily prayer life not realizing that the Lord was preparing me.   And yes I sought out many prayer requests to help buoy our family.  Healing is going to take place, just in the other side of heaven.  It is very humbling to see heaven touch earth during those last moments, weeks, days.   But oh how beautiful and awesome too.  My father’s final moments were not pretty, he sadly suffered much since his body continued to deteriorate even though his mind didn’t want to accept it.  And my father was not pleasant at all, but still, in love to him, we ministered to him and were able to make sure that he was prepared to accept death.  Our wonderful priest made several trips, administered the last rites, his final confession and his final Eucharist.  Our job was to prepare them for the state of grace when he passed on.  And this I did.   I’m so thankful that God had me be a witness to those moments, those graces.  We therefore could really celebrate my father’s passing in Christian joy.  Yes, tears were shed but love surrounded much of it too.   And I look to the promise of seeing my father’s face when I too enter His Kingdom (hopefully in the same state of grace when I’m too infirm to advocate for myself).

    God’s peace & love, Theresa

    • LizEst

      Theresa – my sympathies to you and your family as you mourn your father’s death.  What do you remember most about his life here on earth?

      • THERESAEVENBLY

        My father was a passionate man.  He played his violin as long as I can remember in the symphony, in mariachi bands. He loved to perform serenades for my mother.  He also loved being jolly and playing Santa Claus. He began that tradition long before I was born working in a department store and continued it even last Christmas 2011.  He loved bringing joy.  And I remember how much my father prayed. As a teenager I would wake up at 5am only to find my father already deep in prayer with his morning offerings. He enjoyed giving to his church community, as lector, musician, and arriving at the church very early Sunday morning to open the doors and begin setting up the sound equipment for Mass. He was a man who truly gave his all.  I hope I can honor his memory by embracing life as fully as he did.  Thank you for asking.

        • LizEst

          Those are beautiful memories.  Sounds like he set a wonderful example for everyone.  God bless you.  My prayers for you and your family and for his soul, as well.

  • HerHeartbeat

    Reading this moving column confirms my deep, deep appreciation for Christ’s universal, Holy, Catholic Church!!  Just two days ago I sat at the bedside of a dying precious elderly neighbor who was a non-believer. “There’s a God, yeah, but I’ve got no time for any church.” In my husband’s and my three years of knowing him he and I developed a fine and affectionate relationship. My dog and I often stopped by and always waved and smiled when we couldn’t. He and his bachelor son were often our guests for meals and summer evening visits on the patio. On my only opportunity to try to lead him into exploring God’s love for him he smilingly refused…[he also had difficulty with conversations because of advancing Parkinson’s Disease]…but expressed fear I wouldn’t continue to be his friend. I reassured him I would always be his friend and would by his side until he left this world.  I prayed for his conversion daily as I prayed the rosary.     
     He developed pneumonia suddenly and was semi-comatose until he passed and I spent hours by his side praying and whispering into his ear how very much God loved him and wanted him to live with Him for eternity; that he mustn’t be afraid.  I told him my love for him was only a tiny pinpoint of light compared to what the Father has for him.  I prayed countless Divine Mercy Chaplets, held his hands and kissed them. I trust Jesus gave him a last chance to choose Him and I pray he did. There’s always that tension between God’s fathomless Mercy and the human will. I thank God for allowing me to know my friend and for the opportunity to pray for him. And I thank God for the Church’s teaching on Purgatory!! 
     How very blessed are we who have families who know God and have grown in faith and love all our lives and can write these beautiful, thoughtful reflections of approaching death and experiencing the death of faithful Catholic loved ones.  We are blessed beyond understanding!!!!  And aren’t we also blessed to know our prayers for others is needed and, when united to the Will of the Father and the prayers of the communion of saints, effective.
    I’m grateful for this opportunity to share with you.
    God bless!