Those best prepared for death

The other day, Fr. Mike Schmitz released this video, “The Key to a Happy Death” in which he shares that a student recently asked him, “In your experience, have you found that people who live a long and fulfilling life are more prepared, or better prepared to die–that they’re able to let go of their life more easily?”

And to this, he answered no.

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Something to offer

Sixteen years ago, Terri Schiavo died.

I remember that when she was in the news, I heard the term “vegetative state” for the first time. It immediately struck me as a completely inappropriate term for any person since it explicitly dehumanizes someone by applying an incorrect analogy. Initially the adjective meant, “endowed with the power of growth” but it has come to denote exactly the opposite in public bioethics – that a person is incapable of any significant growth or development. We do not tolerate those who would dehumanize others by calling them cockroaches, so we ought not tolerate the dehumanizing language that refers to persons as “vegetables.”

When I think about Terri Schiavo, I think especially about the impact that her life and death had on my friend Taylor Hyatt. She wrote this great piece several years ago titled, “13 days that changed my life: Remembering Terri Schiavo.”

In the piece, Taylor reflects on how Terri’s story captivated her when she was in Grade 7.

She wrote:

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This is What I Like Best

Today is Alice von Hildebrand’s 98th birthday. I was delighted to meet this wonderful philosopher, teacher, and author when I set out to visit her at her home in New Rochelle a couple years ago. The widow of eminent philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, Alice exudes a profound joy – that is, a joy that is rooted in her deep existential gratitude through which she has grown to love the reality of her present circumstances, no matter what they may be.

In honour of her birthday, I read this piece of hers titled, “Made for Joy“, in which she writes:

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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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Justifying Our Contempt for Death

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Wind, Sand and Stars, the author discusses the character of both his friend Guillaumet as well as that of an old gardener in juxtaposition with the story of a suicide. Take a look at the contrast between them that he paints by his description:

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A Death Chat Over Wine and Cheese

Years ago, one cold December night, I approached St. Christopher’s Hospice in South London. Through the window, I could see several people getting seated around a table. I went to the main entrance and informed the receptionist that I was here for the Death Chat, and she pointed me toward the room that I had seen through the window.

Those who were there greeted me warmly. A man named Anthony was speaking and it was the opposite of small talk. After a few others had arrived, Kostas, a principal social worker in Social Work, Bereavement, and Welfare, facilitated the introductions.

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