In the End, Death is Part of a Process
Being in lockdown caused Fr Kevin Reynolds to reflect on our mortality — and he found that to be a profitable endeavour, as he shares here.
Amid all the bad news, there are certainly as many beneficial stories from the lock-down period as there are people experiencing this unique human condition.
By now we have heard of many interesting activities people have discovered during their enforced isolation.
However, there is one common thought—death—that has naturally passed through the minds of all in this time of “retreat”. It becomes a more urgent consideration each day as we hear of increasing numbers of people around the world dying due to the coronavirus.
I guess being in a high-risk age category, I started to look more earnestly than ever at the possible imminence of my own death. To aid my reflection I took up again a famous book by the Swiss-American psychologist Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying, published in 1968—coincidentally the year of my ordination.
In starting this book, I soon recalled that a fellow Pretoria priest, Fr Robert McKay, had written his psychology doctoral thesis on the same subject in the 1980s. So I asked his brother, John, to loan me a copy of his brother’s magnum opus. John immediately arranged for Fr McKay to send me his thesis by e-mail from the United States where he has lived for the past three decades.
Upon reading this learned work I came across a very meaningful description of death, namely, that it is a process. This triggered my own reflection on the subject of death.
Why I find this description of something that we tend to shy away from and to fear so exciting and stimulating is because “process” is so integral to our human condition.
We certainly never experience the totality of anything in life in an instant. From our earliest years we get to know that everything is grasped and attained only over a period of growth which usually involves effort and, at times, even a touch of suffering.
Our education schools us in the arduous process of learning the basics of life, like speaking, reading and writing a language, mastering the concept and application of numbers, and coming to terms with drawing.
Even our physical development is very much a process. I was recently aware of this while observing a 14-month-old child learning to take his first steps. As he did so, his brother excitedly shouted: “He is putting one foot in front of the other!”
Nothing is instant
During lockdown I am looking after a friend who is recuperating from hip-replacement surgery. Every morning and evening when I serve her breakfast and supper and chat about her progress, it is apparent how patient she needs to be in recovering from so major an operation.
Indeed, nothing is achieved instantly in life. Graduating from school or university, for instance, marks the culmination of years of applied effort in acquiring knowledge and skills in various fields.
One of the most common human experiences of process is marriage, which Canon Law describes as a union of life and love. A marriage, then, is not just the exchange of vows but an enduring relationship-process.
When death is understood as a process and not just a once-off event, then one recognises that it is actually a growth condition concurrent with life itself. In other words, from the moment we are conceived and begin to grow, our process of dying is also initiated.
Of course, my understanding of death being the reverse of the coin of life is greatly influenced by Jesus Christ’s personal experience of human life and death.
However, even in the order of nature, as the Gospels remind us, unless a grain of wheat dies in the earth it cannot begin to grow and eventually produce a harvest.
Certainly the model of the human Jesus teaches us much. Once again the reality of process is present in his sharing fully our human condition.
In fact, it is the course of his human growth culminating in his death on the cross that becomes his redeeming act for humankind.
Unfortunately, too many people think Christ’s redemptive action is limited to only the events in the last 24 hours of his life on earth.
In reality, he could accept his final suffering and eventual human death only because he had grown fully moment by moment, day by day in his human life.
In other words, while Jesus continued to grow in life, he grew simultaneously in his death that culminated on the cross of Cal-vary.
That did not spare him fear of the unknown that death connotes. This is indicated by his words moments before giving up his spirit, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Two sides of the coin
In coming to the realisation that life and death are the two sides of the coin of human existence, I am challenged to ask: How ready am I for the culmination of my own life and death process?
Like Jesus in his human condition, I continue to fear my own death but, at least, I am consoled and even strengthened by recognising that it will be the culmination of something that has developed throughout my life.
Of course, the Catholic Church’s belief in purgatory, that final stage of growth in the fullness of life, also heartens me in facing my final human culmination not as extinction but as my passing into the glory of Christ’s Resurrection.
In 1996 my saintly godmother, Rona Henshall, was about to have surgery for an abdominal obstruction in the Little Company of Mary Hospital. My two sisters, my brother and I gathered around her bed, literally to pray her by saying the rosary into eternity.
Almost miraculously, as we finished that powerful Marian prayer we noticed Rona pinching her eyes and a single tear running down her cheek in the moment of her death. I believe that that was the moment of her purgatory.
If our current lockdown period, which many compare to a retreat, has only urged me to reflect seriously on the meaning of death, I believe, it has been profitable for me. I hope it continues to be so for you too.
Fr Kevin Reynolds is a priest of the archdiocese of Pretoria.