Caring for the Dying Without Props

Several years ago, I heard the story Bosco Gutierrez Cortina, a Mexican architect who was held hostage by kidnappers attempting to extort a ransom from his family. What struck me most about his story is how he devised a disciplined schedule for himself while is solitary confinement and he resolved to make good use of his time even while being held captive. Stripped of all of his ordinary resources, attachments, and supports, he was forced to discover what he actually had within inside himself. Without books, work, family, community, means of communication, and so much more, Bosco discovered what was a matter of his inner reserves versus what he had not yet deeply interiorized and made his own.

Sometimes I think about this and wonder just how well I know my faith, my family, and my friends. If I lost the ability to worship in community and to communicate with those I love, what would I have interiorly that would sustain me amid such deprival?

These thoughts also bring to mind an anecdote shared by Cicely Saunders, the founder of modern hospice and palliative care. In her biography, Shirley du Boulay writes, “When Cecily offered to read to David Tasma [the man who became the ‘founding patient’ of St. Christopher’s Hospice], thinking to comfort him, he said, ‘No — no reading. I only want what is in your mind and in your heart.’ She never forgot that simple reaction; and mind and heart became twin poles of St. Christopher’s philosophy.”

What do we have inside ourselves with which to comfort the dying? Without props, without activities, without prestige, who do we have to give when someone says, “I only want what is in your mind and in your heart”?

Giving Death Its Due

On of my favourite sections of the book After One-Hundred-and-Twenty: Reflecting on Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in the Jewish Tradition by Hillel Halkin is about the proper measure of grief in our lives and our communities.

Hilkin writes:

“The basic approach of the rabbis in Semahot [a rabbinic text on death and mourning] is to allow sufficient space for grief while channeling it into formulaic expressions and surrounding it with numerous prescriptions that make sure its desirable limits are not exceeded. Death is a blow that must not be faced alone; it requires the support of others; the emotions it arouses must be acknowledged and given voice to; yet they are best expressed in time-tested ways that never carry mourners past the point from which they can find their way back to normal functioning within a reasonable amount of time. Mourning is not just a private affair. It is the concern of the community, which is thrown off balance if one of its members fails to recover from a death quickly enough. Life has its rights, too. If a funeral and a wedding procession meets in the streets of the town, Semahot rules, the mourners must turn aside from the path of the bride, since ‘respect for the living precedes respect for the dead.’ Should you have to choose between paying a condolence call and attending a celebration for the birth of someone’s child, choose the celebration.”

Next, Halkin recounts this story from the same source about Rabbi Akiva when his son became seriously sick:

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