The following was a college essay written by Miriam Trujillo. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.
By Miriam Trujillo, Catholic University of America
2020’s headline-monopolizing epidemic of fear has once again driven home a point that society carefully never talks about, and yet that is all the more palpable for its very omission: we are a people afraid of death. The coronavirus is a comparatively non-lethal illness, and yet the very thought of it coming anywhere near us has cancelled sports events, schools, flights, and left people afraid to leave their homes. Grocery stores have run out of food. Students studying abroad were forced to return home. The coronavirus panic even cancelled the Olympics. Society has, in a very tangible way, once again become paralyzed at the thought of an approaching death. During years not plagued with a worldwide disease, society’s unhealthy relationship with death is much more subtle, yet it is still present. If one looks closely enough, one can discern many society-wide symptoms that appear to indicate we have not made peace with this inevitable end. Any casual mention of death usually sparks not-quite-feigned outrage or nervous titters. The rise of technology has enabled the medical community to take many extraordinary measures to postpone death, sometimes even for a few minutes, and these measures themselves often result in great pain. Like many things that haunt us, the spectre of death has also become a fascination. Violence and stylized death have become a routine part of our entertainment. The ways to quietly end the life of undesirables, such as the old and the unborn, are quite legal. We fear death, but we are also enthralled.
Is there any other way to approach death? Must we live alternately paralyzed, entranced, and in denial about the end of our lives? Such questions are surely most pressing of all for the medical community. Nurses and doctors must deal with actual deaths every day. While they do everything they can do to prevent death, they must also come to terms with the fact that they will never permanently succeed. Every patient they treat will die, and fear of that death will haunt every patient. The unspoken panic surrounding death only becomes stronger in the hospital.
On the other hand, since doctors and nurses must squarely face death as a matter of routine, they are in a special position to help people quell their fears of death. In their daily interaction with panicked patients, they not only have the opportunity to medically treat patient’s physical ailments, but they also can use their influence to help patients prepare for a good death. In present day society, this idea is very counterintuitive. We see doctors and nurses as individuals who have the responsibility to try by any means necessary to save the lives of their patients. Dealing with death should not factor into their job descriptions at all, since to even recognize the presence of death would be to give up. According to this mindset, doctors and nurses should only acknowledge the possibility of death when all other hope has been distinguished. In other words, medical professionals should only recognize death when death is imminently upon their patients, allowing for no time at all to prepare for a good death. Thus, in our society there is an tension between a medical professional’s obvious duty to cure the patient and his or her potential ability to help a patient towards a good death. We are so afraid of death that we are unable to recognize preparations for death as part of the road to genuine health, mental and spiritual.
Our attitude to death, like our attitude to the coronavirus, often approaches something like a panic. In order to dissolve that panic, somewhat, it may be best to examine death from multiple angles in order to determine what it really is. We fear what we do not know, and death is a great mystery to us. Yet, there is no reason not to understand death. From the Catholic perspective, especially, death is something conquered by the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. It no longer holds the terror it once did. Now it merely has become the culmination of this life’s virtuous and vicious choices and the gateway to bliss in Heaven. Philosophers and theologians have thought much about death, and for the most part, their theories are quite consoling. Before we attempt to reconcile a nurses’ duty to heal with her ability to aid a good death, it is necessary to examine death from a philosophical and theological perspective, as well as a physical perspective. Death after all, affects the whole person and not just the physical organism. Our view of death, similarly, should include the whole person.
To begin with the most fundamental theological document of the Catholic Church, it is important to note that The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites death as unnatural:
Death therefore was therefore contrary to the plans of God the Creator and entered the world as a consequence of sin. Bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned is thus the last enemy of man left to be conquered (CCC 1008).
Conquered it is, however, by the Passion:
Death is transformed by Christ Jesus, the Son of God, also himself suffered death that is part of the human condition. Yet, despite His anguish as He faced death, He accepted it in an act of complete and free submission to his Father’s will. The obedience of Jesus has transformed the curse of death into blessing (CCC 1009).
This is the complete opposite of how we are accustomed to view death in our secular lives. A blessing! To consider the greatest curse of our lives in the light of a blessing would go a long way in calming our fear of ending. What is more, this angle of death encourages us to take some action in the view of our oncoming deaths. Christ accepted death with humility and grace. He used His death to gain life-giving grace for all His children. To follow in His footsteps, we must not merely see death as a blessing but use death as a blessing. We too must take death as a chance to grow closer to God, grow in the humility and submission that makes us loving children to a loving Father, and use our death as a moment of spiritual awakening for others. A death like this is a death that will bring us into the presence of God, our true home. A good Christian death, therefore is no longer a moment of passivity, but a moment of action. It is no longer an end in the sense that it is the ultimate cut-off of our hope and plans. Rather it is our end in the fullest sense: our “telos.” It is the culmination of our whole lives to bring us to home.
The great philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, also noted that death is an unnatural process. He however, recognized the fact that material things are not designed to last forever. The original immortality of the human body was entirely due to the generosity of God:
We showed above that the rational soul exceeds the capacity of all corporeal matter in a measure impossible to other forms (154). This is demonstrated by its intellectual activity, which it exercises without the body. To the end that corporeal matter might be fittingly adapted to the soul, there had to be added to the body some disposition that would make it suitable matter for such a form. And in the same way that this form itself receives existence from God alone through creation, that disposition, transcending as it does corporeal nature, was conferred on the human body by God alone, for the purpose of preserving the body itself in a state of incorruption, so that it might match the soul’s perpetual existence. This disposition remained in man’s body as long as man’s soul cleaved to God.
But when man’s soul turned from God by sin, the human body deservedly lost that supernatural disposition whereby it was unrebelliously subservient to the soul. And hence man incurred the necessity of dying.
There is an element of justice in our deaths. We forfeited the direct share in God’s grace that gave one’s body “some disposition that would make it suitable matter for such a [immortal] form.” God was supremely gracious in raising our failing material form to a supernatural level and we rejected that gift. Yet, God was supremely gracious again and took on our own weakened material nature. Once again, our bodies were raised to an immortal level. Only this time, we have to actively choose, with every moment of time we have, to partake in that grace. Adding Thomas Aquinas’ theories to the teaching of the Catechism heightens the sense of urgency we must carry in this temporal world. We must regain the original gift God gave our mortal bodies by cooperating in His grace. We must be in such a state of grace and cooperation at the point of our death. In this scenario, every moment of our life matters and the moment of our death carries the greatest weight of all.
The Catholic Church’s view thus completely subverts our reasons to fear death. The chilling end to our personalities has become transformed into the warm beginning of a whole eternity’s worth of personal fulfillment in the presence of our origin and end. An examination of the actual physical process of death, once again in the light of the dogmas of the Catholic Church, only serves as further comfort to stay our fears of death. The physical process of death occurs when the kinetic functions of our body shut down. We are then no longer able to move, respond, sense, or feel. According to most religious and philosophical traditions, including that of the Catholic Church, this is the time when our soul (or whatever aspect of animation that keeps us alive) departs. At this moment, there is a fundamentally unnatural separation of two essential components of our being. Yet, according to the Catholic Church, this is a temporary condition. At the end of time, our bodies are supposed to reunite with our souls. Those saved by God’s grace and their own cooperation will go to Heaven, while those damned by their own resistance despite God’s grace shall be physically and spiritually tortured in Hell. The chilling bodily inertia, that most palpable result of death, is not meant to last forever. Our gateway to Heaven does not entail bidding a final farewell to our bodies and our dual natures.
To further emphasize the hopeful side of a Christian death, it is worth considering a hypothetical world in which death did not occur. 16th century’s Francis Bacon’s scientific project envisioned a world where science conquered death. Bacon’s world would still encounter illnesses and injuries, but the physicians’ methods of treatment would be so effective these ailments would never result in death. At first glance, obviously such a scenario is attractive. We would never lose anyone we loved. We would never have to feel that rising sense of panic as our time runs out and our chance to fulfill our dreams fades away. It seems we would be at peace. Yet, when contrasted with the Catholic viewpoint of death, this lengthy life loses something of a drive. The sense of urgency that makes life meaningful disappears. Without any moment of ending and reckoning, the many actions of our endless lives lose their purpose. There is no culmination in such a life, no time when one’s actions come back to haunt one and force one to constructive choices. If we lived forever, we would no longer treasure the value of a fleeting life. If we were eternal on earth, we might even lose our sense of value for each other. God would seem very far off if we never met Him face to face. Life would lose its moral momentum.
The Catholic solution to the fear of death, on the other hand, acknowledges that we must face death. but it also promises us something at the end of death. According to Catholic dogma, death is no longer the abrupt end of our lives. It is, however, an event that brings consequences. Our lives don’t only have meaning after death, our death forces us to give meaning to every action on earth, no matter how small. The Catholic view on death thus brings the dying both great hope and great responsibility. We are relieved from that existential terror that we are slowly fading out of existence, but we are also awaked to a fact nearly as sobering: our every moment on earth determines our eternal fate.
We need not fear death. If we have readied ourselves to meet God with a life well lived, death can be the moment of great consolation. This more hopeful attitude towards death, however, renders preparation for a good death absolutely essential. If our whole afterlife hangs on the state of our soul at death, a virtuous death is more important than physical comfort or even physical treatment. In a world that truly intended to treat the whole person, preparation for a good death, when a person is seriously ill, is paramount. On the part of the dying, death should not be a time for frozen panic, but earnest, hopeful preparations. The frenzied fear of death that besets this culture is one of the greatest enemies to a good death. It is yet another temptation to despair, worrying a fallen soul at the most crucial moment of his or her life. Yet, when we have internalized the above dogmas, the panic over death will subside. If we have hope for heaven, we can use the fear of death every day of our lives to prompt us to make virtuous choices. The fear of death thus becomes a tool not a thorn. It keeps us mindful of the state of our souls, but it comes into our lives as a promise not as a ghost.
The Catholic Church, what is more, provides concrete step by step plans to ensure that one has taken care of all earthly affairs and is prepared to begin one’s next and forever life:
The most popular variant, the Tractatus Artis Bene Moriendi, contained six parts: a commendation of death, a warning of the temptations of the dying and advice on how to resist them, a short catechism concerning repentance, instructions and prayers focused on imitating the dying Christ, a call to both the dying and the caregivers to prioritize these matters, and finally, the prayers for the anointing of the sick. The genre remained popular for three hundred years, lasting well into the 18th century (Paul Chaloux, 288).
Such an ordered plan for death allows us to use our entire person to prepare for death, our intellect as well as our failing bodies. Death, like everything else in our lives, should involve our intellect and our wills. Our approach to death can be ennobled when we involve ourselves to such a degree. Such a step by step plan for death allows us to actively place our lives in God’s choice. It allows us a clear way to align ourselves with God at the end of life, and should do much to dispel our panic at the unknown.
We each have a certain amount of control over our death preparations, but how does the environment around us reflect the character of our deaths? Does a conventional 21st century death, in a hospital surrounded by doctors and nurses help or hurt our chances for a spiritually good death? That depends, in a large degree, on the doctors and nurses attending the patient. Their frenzy to postpone death can indeed cloud one’s ability to tranquilly prepare for a good death. Then again, isn’t it the medical profession’s solemn duty to do everything they can to avoid a patient’s death? Once again the question comes around: do medical professionals have any role to play in preparing a patient for a good death, or would any such action weaken their resolve to cure the patient? Can a nurse fight for life and welcome death at the same time? It appears to be possible. The nurse, in treating the physical body, is dealing with a different component of the human person than when he or she is attempting to aid the soul. The body and the soul require different types of treatment. If a nurse helps treat both the body and the soul in the manner which is best suited to the body and the soul respectively, it is impossible for the two types of treatment to conflict. Rather, the nurse, in recognizing the differing needs of the body and the soul at the moment of death, is treating the whole human with the dignity that he or she deserves. It is the body’s due to be treated with respect and healing right up until the moment it fails. Likewise, it is the soul’s due to remember the significance of death and contemplate it’s readiness for death. There is no real tension between these two actions. They co-exist in a harmony that allows the whole person to flourish. In order to treat the whole person, both treatments are not only optimal, they are necessary.
A spiritual preparation of death thus is an essential part of treating the whole person, but how does it practically factor into a nurses’ daily life? How can he or she daily resolve the ostensible conflict between scrambling to save lives and peaceably assist in a good death? Obviously, a nurses’ primary care is the patients’ physical health while a chaplain must prioritize the patients’ soul but the influence of the nurse as a deathbed companion should not be underestimated. For one thing, the nurse can carry out all of her duties with a sense of cheerfulness and calm. The attempt made to save a patient’s life, no matter how urgent they become, can be performed without the sense of desperation that often pits medicalized death against a death resigned to eternal life. The nurse can acknowledge the patient as a whole person, worthy of dignity, instead of just an isolated body part to be treated. He or she can even offer the hope of eternal life through a few carefully chosen words. God gave us free will and He desires us to respect each other’s free choices, religious choices included, but He also desires us all to come to Him. A nurse blessed with the knowledge of the truth can try his or her best to convey it in ways that are hopeful, encouraging, and respectful. The time of death is sometimes the time when people listen best.
A nurse is in the position to witness all the moments of a patient’s process towards death. He or she is there when a patient realizes that the anticipated moment has come. The nurse can help the patient process it, and most importantly he or she can help turn a patient away from panic and towards a contemplation of death as a good. The nurse can sooth the patient’s fear, reminding him or her that death is temporary and that death can be used as a great moment of grace. All this can be done while giving the body the attention and treatment it deserves. In fact, it only can be done properly when the body too is treated. Before death, or bodies are still connected to our souls and their care affects the soul’s journey towards God. Salvation embraces the whole human nature, and nurses too must reflect that in their practice.
Aquinas Thomas. Summa Theologiae. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2085.htm (Accessed March 8, 2020).
Catechism of the Catholic Church. Mahwah, N.J: Paulist Press, 1994. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_P2I.HTM (Accessed March 8, 2020).
Chaloux, Paul. “The Grace Concealed in Suffering: Developing Virtue and Beatitude.” Ph.D. diss., Catholic University of America, 2020.
Edited By: Ariel Hobbs