Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 3, Pages 59-69

Our communities of support do not have to be perfect, but they should feel hospitable. We should feel safe among those who love us and have committed to looking after us.

Page 59

We all grew up in some kind of family community with people committed to looking after us. We retain those same communities as adults, though they naturally broaden and those who were caregivers gradually become the ones who need looking after. This perpetuation of familial care is likely to be the normal course of life in societies that value high birth rates and have limited possibilities for geographic or economic mobility. Our modern Western societies might be the first in world history not to fit that description. Would that mean that “commitment to community” is a characteristically modern concern?

I think that answer to that has to be Yes and No. Certainly low birth rates and scope for mobility, as well as the individualistic and self-inventive ideologies of modern Western societies pose unique challenges to the formation of communities. But people have been forming extra-familial intentional communities for a long time. No doubt there have been innumerable such communities in human history but the one I know best is the one in which I belong. I have made an explicitly intentional commitment to my Dominican community through religious vows. It is a community of men sharing particular beliefs, practices, and goals. It is also a diverse community that is international, intergenerational, and composed of people with different backgrounds, personalities, and experiences. The longer I have been part of this community, the more I love it and perceive its flaws. I also come to recognize that its flaws are in many ways my flaws as well as the antidote to my flaws.

Every community is in some way an intentional community. Some might perceive the perpetuation of family life as the normal, even inevitable, course. It still requires willing participation and (sometimes explicitly) intentional commitment. In our modern Western societies, we have more options than our ancestors did. Community is less automatic for us. That can be bad when communities erode and we fail to look after each other. But it can be good when our commitment to community becomes more intentional, or intentional in a different way. I think that is true for my siblings and friends who are married and raising children and for my brother Dominicans (and surely for other people who commit to community in other ways). Their commitment to community is in the face of tempting alternatives to the contrary. Those communities will always be flawed and learning to care for each other in spite of our flaws will always be sanctifying.

Why am I here? What does life mean? What happens when we die? Whether religious or not, most of us come from communities that offer some sort of basic response to these fundamental questions. Engaging those responses and accepting, rejecting, or modifying them is part of what shapes our identities in relationship to our communities.

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We ask and respond to existential questions like these throughout our lives but especially in times of crisis. Sickness and death are among the critical moments of life that prompt this kind of thinking. I encounter that a lot in ministering to the sick and dying and I find that I can be of help to such people to the extent that I am part of their community. At minimum and importantly, that community is grounded in our common humanity. Very often it is also grounded in our shared faith. As a priest, I have a certain role in speaking on behalf of Christ and his Church. But I also speak with people as a fellow believer and member of the community of believers in Christ. I can talk to them about what we believe, what we confidently hope for, and what God has said and done and promised to us. We can assure and support each other, not as separate individuals expressing private opinions, but as sharers in a common identity with a common destiny.

Byock notes that hospice provides a model for ‘relationship completion’ by encouraging the dying to say five phrases: ‘I forgive you,’ ‘Forgive me,’ ‘Thank you,’ I love you,’ and ‘Goodbye.’

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I think this is great. In this Thanksgiving week, perhaps we can thing more about the importance of “Thank you,” especially with our loved ones to whom we might not have many more opportunities for expressing gratitude in this life.

When I think about community existing on these three levels – familial, societal, biomedical – my patient Diana Atwood Johnson comes to mind.

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I find Dr. Dugdale’s thoughts about levels of community fascinating. I think she is right that robust community life exists on different levels. The three levels she identifies are probably not the same as the levels of community I would identify in my own life. I would certainly add my Dominican community and distinguish between my Church community, my family community, and my community of peer friendships, especially among my college “household” brothers. My biomedical or “healthcare” community is mostly associated with my being a caretaker rather than a care recipient, though I can see how that would be a level of community to someone like Diana. To me, the healthcare community is more like a work community. I think it is instructive for us to reflect upon the levels of community in our lives.

Surrounding the bed were many of those who loved her most – old friends, her minister, a fellow birdwatcher. Even in death, she was not alone. She had told each of us stories about the others. Although we had just met, it felt like a reunion of old friends.

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I don’t recall an experience like this at any of the many death bed scenes that I have been part of. I suppose I am in some way part of the “biomedical” community in those cases. In my experience this kind of joining of communities happens more often at baptisms, weddings, and wakes. The idea of a transitive property of relationships does resinate with me. When I meet someone who is close to someone that is close to me, I do perceive a kind of instant connection.

‘Death was always public. Hence the profound significance of Pascal’s remark that one dies alone.’

Philippe Ariès, quoted on Page 69

There is a tension or dialectic between community and solitude. In death as in life, we are united with others and we are uniquely individual. Both community and solitude characterize our relationship with God. Perhaps that solitude is most pronounced as we stand before God at the hour of our death commending ourselves to our merciful judge. Fr. John Devaney, in the same video I referred you to last week ((starting 4 minutes and 37 seconds into the video), says, “We all kind of die alone. At the end it’s just you and God.”

4 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 3, Pages 59-69”

  1. Ars Moriendi intended “relationship building as well as the preparations for death were meant to take place over the course of a lifetime.” Again, I believe we’re talking about dying alone vs living a lonely life. Dr. Dugdale points out that illness can cause our worlds to become “smaller, but also more meaningful.” Do we perhaps see this with COVID? We’ve become isolated and feel the lack of community. I believe we must be ever vigilant to keep our communities strong and ever growing. Even the community that Fr Jonah speaks of changes as our society changes. My sister is a nun and as her community has become smaller, they were forced to sell much of their property including their infirmary. Now when the Sisters become infirm and terminally ill they move to a Nursing Home that accepts Medicaid. Although not abandoned by their community they may often face death somewhat alone. I believe that in life as well as at the end of life “people do better when less lonely.” We must be watchful and ever vigilante that our relationships stay strong and healthy. During COVID I often find myself lonely and thinking and praying that I need to make new friends. After thinking that one day I sat on sat on a park bench and the plaque on it said “A friend is a gift we give ourselves.” A message from above?

    1. Another message from today’s gospel from Mark – “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.”

  2. Vera -Similar to the decedent …when I attended my friend’s husband’s wake, I met the community of her frieinds …each of
    whom I had already heard/known a lot about… I felt I knew them already. When I think of community, it’s nuclear family, extended family, family of friends, be it work or neighborhood…and connected by Church/religious/spiritual belief, in most cases. I’d never thought of solitude as that very moment before God, our merciful judge into whose hands we are placed.. the last moment, our individual end!! ..our creator and redeemer! As we grow older, I think most begin to consider/think/focus on the existential questions posed…as our time “here” grows shorter …and, most likely for most people, it’s quite a different outlook than “when we first begun”the journey !! Our humanity and destiny is bound, more firmly than we’d ever thought previously….

  3. Community. Even the name conveys a commonality–a shared fellowship and a public spirit. We feel a sense of belonging and an appreciation for something greater than ourselves. In communion with one another and in communion with God, we are strengthened. We are not alone. But what happens when we lose sight of community and feel like we are alone? Tonight I attended the wake for a woman I met while volunteering at a nursing home. Her daughter said she survived COVID, but she could not survive the past eight months of social isolation. Worse than dying alone, worse even than dying lonely, this woman died from loneliness. Will forced social isolation become the next risk factor to our health? Will it be classified as the next disease? Will lockdown “survivors”–especially young children and long term care residents–refer to social isolation as the next source of post-traumatic stress disorder? I hope and pray that we find a way to overcome it before our communities succumb to it. We are, after all, designed to be stronger together.

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