Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 9 Art, Pages 236-237

Unlike many of Michael W. Dugger’s ink renderings that we have considered, this one seems unambiguous. Perhaps you see some ambiguity or hidden meaning that I do not. But it appears to me just as Dr. Dugdale describes it: an “image of a young boy with his grandmother.” Dr. Dugdale says this image “exemplifies the answer that most people give when asked what brings meaning to their lives.” Here she refers to a Pew Research Center survey that she described in Chapter 9. The survey “asked people to use their own words to describe what gives their lives meaning” and “participants ranked family as the the greatest source of meaning” (Page 202). Concluding with the chapter titled “Life” in this book about dying, I suggest we ask (ourselves) a slightly different question: “When confronted with the prospect of your death, for what do you want to live?”

I think most people would still answer with some version of “family.” I often hear that from patients I visit in hospitals. Parents want to live for the sake of their children. Grandparents want to spend more time with their children and grandchildren. Sometimes their desires to keep living for the sake of family are more specific: “I want to see my grandson graduate from college.” “I want to be there when my granddaughter gets married.” Or, even more heart wrenching, “My children are young and they still need me.”

I myself recall answering this question before I was conscious of asking it. I was undergoing radiation treatment for the cancer that remained in my brain after surgery. I was staying with my cousins outside Boston and had just attended Mass. As I was walking with my sister from the church to our car, I had what seemed a spontaneous thought: “I hope I survive so that I can be a priest.”

Facing the prospect of death helped my to clarify my purpose in life. I have heard many cancer patients say similar things. Sometimes they talk about how they are “getting their priorities straight” or realizing “what is really important in life.” Of course, what is important in life can extend beyond biological life and need not be limited to one thing. For me, having cancer prompted a new and deepened commitment to the God who gives me eternal life in Jesus Christ. What is most meaningful to me transcends my life in this world. But cancer helped me see my purpose in this life too.

We shouldn’t have to have cancer or any other life-threatening experience in order to know our reasons for living, or to get our priorities straight. But we do have to come to terms with our deaths. Because, for us mortals, death limits life. Death defines the span of life and poses the questions of whether and how there might be life beyond death’s limits. One way or another, the meaning of life is bound up with the meaning of death.

Of course we all know that we are going to die. The question is how well we know that and how we allow the certainty of our dying to affect our living. For me, having cancer at a young age forced me to start thinking about my death as a practical reality rather than just a theoretical truism. Confronted with the practical reality of my death, I was led to consider the reality of my life in this world and my eternal life in Christ. Maybe I needed to get brain cancer in order to do that. I don’t think everybody needs that and, of course, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But everyone does need to face death in order to understand life. And it’s not enough to know in a theoretical way that you are going to die. We need to understand our deaths in a practical way, a way that informs the practice of our living.

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This discussion post is number 27 of 27, the last in our group reading of Dr. L. S. Dugdale’s The Lost Art of Dying. Thank you for joining me during the nearly eight months we have spent reading and discussing this book. I hope you will also join me for our virtual conversation with Dr. Dugdale on Wednesday, May 26, at 7:30, which will conclude our group reading project. That conversation will take place just two days after this post was published but you can still register here. I will be sending email messages with Zoom links to everyone who registers.

5 thoughts on “Discussion Post for THE LOST ART OF DYING, Chapter 9 Art, Pages 236-237”

  1. It is fitting that the good doctor concludes her book by writing us a prescription for living well. Find what gives your life meaning. Live for what you love.

    Saint Thomas Aquinas proposed that fulfillment comes from living for our final cause. He believed our desires are ultimately orientated towards the trinitarian God who gives our lives purpose and meaning. Father Jonah was blessed to have a higher calling for his vocation…and we are blessed that he said yes.

    For many of us, our relationships play a key role in our happiness. The artist is clever to depict a multi-generational image. As we age, we naturally lose many of our connections. Grandchildren can provide uncomplicated joy and an effortless link to our youth.

    I am looking forward to hearing more of Dr. Dugdale’s insights at the virtual discussion. She has graciously and eloquently raised important issues that are ordinarily difficult to broach. I am also grateful to Father Jonah who, week by week, baptized the topics to provide us with a thoughtful Catholic perspective. For the faithful, the religious component is crucial for both living well and dying well.

    Best wishes to everyone!

  2. It’s tempting for me to think that Dugdale’s ending of the book with a chapter called “Life” and a happy picture is a sweeping under the rug of the discussions of the book, a sort of saying “it’s all ok though!” I think this is an important diversion to consider, and one that there is often temptation to use – particularly in the medical setting when we have just delivered bad news. “But we’re not sure!” or “there’s this other treatment option” etc, which is often just a tactic to soften the blow to ourselves feeling powerless.

    However, in this case, I think that Dr Dugdale has earned it. The book is relatively thorough and I am very glad we have read it together. She’s not sweeping the difficulty under the rug, but only highlighting the goal: a good death requires focus on a good life, and I think that what is “good” is focusing on those things which we would still focus on were we to have a terrible new diagnosis or accident. I appreciate the stories you have shared above, though I haven’t experienced it myself. I hope that at the least, through your stories and the themes of this book, I can develop my understanding of a “good” life by focusing on that which is most important – family, faith, community – even now, as there is a temptation from the world at large not to consider finitude. Thank you!

  3. Thank you, Father! A while back a pt at MSK who’d been a volunteer in a cancer hospital himself before he was diagnosed with sarcoma told me “it’s different when it’s you!” As someone who has a rare progressive lung disease (forgive me if I’ve told you this already), I knew what he meant, and here I can see you know as well. I imagine your experience makes you a better chaplain, and surely a priest extra-worthy of that title, as well. As you said, that knowledge is nothing you’d wish on anyone, but it’s something visceral to be grateful for, weird as that seems.

    In general, I think my thoughts about death have changed a great deal, though I have been a hospice volunteer for many years as well as a chaplain for the last 4.5, as my own death comes ever closer. I’m hoping for Jesus to come for me–I pray for that; I try to be ready!

  4. vera o – if we have been lucky enough to have had a mother live to 90s with her faculties…the qualities and virtues discussed are
    ours to hold and instill in others, to pass along to children or other dear ones… Faith, Courage of our convictions!!
    When you noted “father forgive them” I had to think of the priest in St Athanasius in Bklyn recently where the cross had been
    desecrarted…that is what he said to the TV press person!!!! interviewing him….GREAT!!!
    I enjoyed the comments on “grieving clothes”…black dress, black cover on coffin (pre vatian II)….and black over face…like Jackie Kennedy!!at least one was permitted a “moment” to grieve…I get that, but as a little child in grade 1, i was “scared”…and I like mass of the resurrection better and enjoy celebrating one’s life versus their death..(even though they are passing over to the BEST!!) My computer is broken and my Kinkos card is running out…sorry…..hope to hear the discussion on the 16th…..thank you fr jonah..great book dr dugdale…..be well, all.

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