Stories about Death and Dying

by Melannie Svoboda SND on May 25, 2020

Last week I wrote about dying alone. This week I’ll share a few additional thoughts on death and dying, mostly in story form. I’m posting this on Memorial Day, the day we Americans remember in prayer and gratitude those men and women who died while serving our country in the U.S. military. As I did last week, I’m basing this reflection on my interviews with four friends who have ministered to the dying and their families for many years. Those friends are Marla, Donna, Helen, and Gail.

Gail said, “Death is as unique as the individual who is experiencing it.” Some individuals give clear directives about how they want to die, saying or writing things like this: “I want my family and close friends with me, if possible… I will spend quality time with my family and friends before the actual event of dying… I want to be alone with God when I die.” Some individuals even help plan their own funerals.

Marla told the story of a man who struggled with alcohol for years, before joining AA. He eventually ran AA meetings and served as a sponsor for many. Shortly before he died, he sent for Marla. When she entered his home, she found an elderly, white-bearded man sitting at the foot of his bed, a man he had sponsored in AA. I thought it was significant that Marla (his pastoral care minister) and his “AA Brother” were two people the dying man wanted to see as he neared his heavenly home.

Helen’s father was in a small residential home. One morning, a nurse came in and asked him what he wanted for breakfast. Her father enthusiastically described in detail what he wanted: two eggs sunny-side up, two strips of bacon, a small glass of orange juice, two pieces of rye toast buttered, and coffee with cream. When the nurse returned with the breakfast 20 minutes later, Helen’s father was dead. Some people slip into eternity very quickly and unexpectedly–even minutes after ordering a hearty breakfast.

How can we support our loved ones when they are dying? All four pastoral ministers said, “Don’t wait until someone is dying to say what you need to say to them—like ‘I love you,” or asking their forgiveness for something, or telling them how much they mean to you.” Donna also said that sometimes we have to give our loved one permission to die. The others agreed. One elderly man was dying for days at home and was extremely restless. When his wife of many years finally gave him permission to die, his restlessness subsided and he died shortly after. Donna also said, “We don’t have to use a lot of words when someone we love is dying. Touch becomes more important than words. Hold their hand… stroke their forehead—whatever you feel comfortable with.” She added, “And don’t be afraid to share your tears with them.”

A primary teacher was dying at home. Gail came twice a week to pray with her. The woman asked Gail if they could use the children’s book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss. The book ends with, “Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way!” Says Gail, “That was one of the most unique prayer times I ever shared with someone who was dying.”

If we can’t be physically present with someone who is dying, we can always send a card, call them on the phone, or use Facetime, Zoom, or some other way to connect with them. And remember, praying for someone who is dying is another way of being with them.

Marla told the story of a woman dying at home. Her beloved cat used to jump on her bed. But, as the woman neared death, the cat’s weight on the bed caused her physical pain. So her son put the cat in the basement. After the woman died and the funeral directors removed her body, Marla suddenly heard the cat meowing at the basement door. When she opened it, the cat bolted into the woman’s room and onto her bed. Then the cat began to wail—not simply meow. “It was a howling unlike anything the family had ever heard before,” said Marla, “and it lasted for quite some time.” Marla believes the cat knew the woman had died and was mourning her loss.

Gail shared this story from the writer Robert Wicks in Touching the Holy. In an old cemetery somewhere in the U.S. there are two gravestones next to each other. One is a “large imposing marker” for a famous general. It lists all the battles he won and his many accomplishments. The other is a small stone for a young woman who died at 21. The inscription reads, “Everywhere she went, she brought flowers.” We do not need to fret over when, where, and how we will die or what we will be remembered for. All is in God’s hands. Instead let us live our lives in such a way that we bring the flowers of love, beauty, and goodness into other people’s lives simply by being who we are.

Is there anything in this reflection you would like to respond to?

Have you had any experiences with death that you would like to share with us?

What are some of your thoughts about your own death?

Our song today is “Remember Me,” a beautiful song written by Deborah Govenor. How blessed are we Christians, for we have Jesus… we have the Eucharist… we have his resurrection and his promise of eternal life…

I welcome you to share your thoughts below. Thank you!

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan May 25, 2020 at 5:05 am

My mom struggled with five types of cancer. The lung cancer finally caused her to gasp for air. For three day she was unresponsive and her eyes were closed. The day she died my husband and I were in the hospital room with her. I was holding her hand and she opened her eyes. I looked at her and said, “Mom, whoever you see take their hand and go”. She closed her eyes, stopped breathing and went to Our Lord. Strangely as peaceful look came upon her face. She finally was at peace.

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Clare May 25, 2020 at 8:05 am

Thank you Sister, for all your wonderful reflections each week.
I come from a close, crazy family of 6 children. When our widowed mother was on her death bed at the nursing home, we were all with her, and her Hospice nurse explained what we were seeing, as the dying process continued. I think we all felt mom was holding on because we were all there, but of course we wanted to be with her. Suddenly the nun, who was the administrator, walked into the room, nodded to us and approached my mom. She got quite close to her ear and began to loudly say, “Katie, remember that Jesus told his disciples that he was leaving to prepare a place for them. He has prepared a place for you, and it’s ready. You can go.” She then said a short blessing and left. We all watched her go, and then turning back to mom, watched her then take her last breath and pass. One of my older brothers immediately said, “Well there goes the Angel of Death”, and through our tears, we all laughed out loud!
Life, love, and laughter are words that will always remind me of my mom.

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Kathy May 25, 2020 at 5:45 am

Thanks, Sister, for these weeks of reflections on dying.
We are coming up on the one year anniversary of my dad’s dying, and my mom, sisters and I are planning how will we spend the day together commemorating Dad.
Last year was tough as we lost my mom’s sister and my dad’s sister as well. These people were all in their 80’s and 90’s. However toward the end of the year my brother-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 61. The advice “Don’t wait until someone is dying to say what you need to say to them—like ‘I love you,” or asking their forgiveness for something, or telling them how much they mean to you” really hit home for us, and especially for my sister. She thought she’d have much more time with her husband.

Thanks again for your weekly reflections. They are always a good beginning to my week.

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Aimee Burrow May 25, 2020 at 6:22 am

Thank you, Sister! I read a reflection written by you in the Living Faith and was directed to your blog. I am a nurse in a Catholic hospital in Mississippi – even though I am not on the front lines anymore, I see the frustration families are going through during this pandemic when visiting their family members is difficult.
My three sisters and I were at my mothers bedside when she passed away 5 years ago – it was a beautiful moment for us. I felt God’s presence and a tremendous peace!

Your words are inspiring and encouraging. I will continue to follow your blog. Thank you!
Blessings on this Memorial Day!

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John Hopkins May 25, 2020 at 6:55 am

Good morning, Sister Melannie…..
Good morning, all…

I echo Kathy’s first sentence. Death and dying is something we need to talk about it — freely and openly.

Sr. Melannie, your words are beautiful! “Let us live our lives in such a way that we bring flowers of love, beauty, and goodness into other people’s lives simply by being who we are.”

Jan. 22, 1996. That’s the date on a grave stone I walk by in a cemetery that’s part of my daily walk. I must have walked past it a hundred times without noticing it until one day I did. On the stone is inscribed, “One sweet day.” When I read these words, a wave of sadness, awe, and prayer came over me. These days I will sometimes stop and a say a prayer — usually a Hail Mary — asking the Blessed Mother to pray for this person now and at the hour of her “one sweet day.”

One sweet day!

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Thomas DeFreitas May 25, 2020 at 7:03 am

My friend Jen was diagnosed with stage four cancer in mid-June two years ago. Six weeks later she was dead. I couldn’t see her at all during those six weeks because the chemo-treatment had compromised her immune system, and seeing too many visitors was thought risky. We communicated by Messenger and by text during those weeks. When Jen died, I was inconsolable. She was in her middle forties, and had been, for three years only, a very dear friend to me.

I know that the reflection today wasn’t exactly about grief, but more about how the dying prepare for death. But my grief was something for which I couldn’t have prepared. I knew, intellectually, theoretically, as Jen lay dying, that things weren’t looking good. But when I got the phone call that rainy August Saturday, it staggered me. For a whole week, I would erupt in racking sobs six, seven times a day.

What solaced me more than the half-absorbed lessons of my faith (which is even now evolving) was poetry, both the reading and the writing of it. I had a book called Poems and Readings for Funerals, and every passage spoke to me deeply. It was solidarity with the souls who had written out of their own bereavement that sustained me. I wrote poems, nine in that awful week between her death and her funeral Mass. Working through the overwhelming emotions in language was definitely helpful.

And I was violently angry at God, of course. All human souls are God’s to begin with, one might say, but when God takes them back, must the Deity exact the extortionate interest of our hearts, our loves, our memories, and so on?

My friendship with Jen survives her death, I know. Through the mysterious influence of prayer (mine for her, hers for me), our closeness is unimpaired. But these truths are hard-fought. No glib pieties availed me in the immediate aftermath of so great a loss.

Thank you so much, Sr Melannie, for posting on this topic. Peace and light.

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LJ May 26, 2020 at 4:10 pm

My condolences at your dear friend’s loss.

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Joan May 25, 2020 at 7:33 am

Thank you for your beautiful reflection. The song brought me to tears.
I was with my sister Eileen two years ago when she was dying of breast cancer at 56. We had been waiting with her in a hospice room at the hospital. Suddenly I felt joy inside. I said to my brother-in-law, “I feel so happy.” I said to myself, “ why are you happy? “ I took my sister’s hand and prepared to spend the night next to her. Within a few minutes she was gone. I like to think that angels, our parents, were there, bringing her home and that she is with them in the place God has prepared for her.

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Rita Maglio May 25, 2020 at 8:27 am

My mother was nearing death and passed into a coma in Florida. All my brothers and sisters flew down to be with her and my Dad. I was nine months pregnant with our ninth child and was advised not to fly from NewHampshire. My Mum had lost her sight due to diabetes and glaucoma, so I had recorded her favorite prayers and the rosary for her to listen to everyday. My sisters assured me that Mum heard my voice as she lay in the hospital. This was 32 years ago. I went to the hospital to have our baby with a picture of my Mum. Maria Dorothy was born on February 7, 1988 and my mother waited until We we’re home safely and passed on February 10th. Maria is named after my heavenly mother and earthly mother, Dorothy. She resembles my Mum in look and temperament and has mentioned having a closeness to her grandmother whom she never met in life.

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Bernadette May 25, 2020 at 8:43 am

It has been my privilege to be with several who have died. I worked as a medic in the army many years ago. For some unknown reason, I was the one who stood at the bedside of a young man, in his early twenties, when he took his last breath. It was such a moving experience for me, a blessing to be the one who stood with him as he entered the beyond.
My faith was “young and inexperienced.” I don’t remember praying but knowing something very profound just happened!
A child came into ICU arriving from Colorado Springs to the military hospital in Denver. I was in nurses training. She was on a ventilator but after a time it was removed as she continued to decline. A curtain was pulled round her and everyone left her bedside awaiting the arrival of her parents. A priest was called, anointed her and gave her last rites before leaving. I could not leave. I stayed until her last breath.
I wanted her parents to know when they arrived that she did not leave this world without someone holding her hand. I remember that her name was Patty. She was 7 years old.
Family members too are among those I was allowed to be with in their last moments. With each of their passings, my deep sense of the profound reality of a life beyond this earthly life deepened. I prayed silently and aloud that their journey would find them securely in the arms of the almighty God.
Mom had the hardest last hours, feeling guilty for leaving us. “It’s ok to let go” I said. “Although I would greatly miss her, I would be ok. We would all be ok. Everyone has a time to die and yours is now“ she nodded and a short time later she was gone. I felt chosen to be present at a time when God, His holy angels and saints entered the holy space of where I also stood, next to the one called home.
Each one of the deaths hold sacred, holy memories for me. Each one was a great blessing in a time of great loss and sadness. Each one helped water my belief, my trust in God and faith in the eternal.
Thank you sister Melannie.

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Ruth Munger May 25, 2020 at 8:53 am

First of all, thank you Sister for your Monday morning inspirations. I look forward to them every week.
The last days of my dad’s life he could say very few words, but one day he repeated over & over, “Go Home.” My mom asked if he meant to join his parents, my brother, & God. He nodded & said, “Yes” very softly. Mom assured him that it was okay to go, but he lingered on. My son told me that he had a dream about his grandpa and that I needed to assure him that my sisters and I would take good care of Mom before he could go. At the time it seemed like a daunting task, but when I was with him, it was not at all. I told him we all loved him, wanted him to be at peace, and that Mom would be taken care of when he was gone. He died peacefully within hours. I was blessed to be a witness to that passing. Sometimes just being told it is okay to let go and “go home” is not enough, sometimes the person dying needs to know that the loved one left behind will be looked after. What a blessing it was to learn that lesson!

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Pete May 25, 2020 at 9:26 am

Yes! Remember me, especially today, all the fallen heroes who have defended our great country. John’s Gospel today tells us we are not alone, He is with those heroes and us in our daily lives. At 3 pm today, the playing of Taps will bring it home, and tears to my eyes! Blessings.

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Jane Grace McCarthy May 25, 2020 at 10:00 am

Thanks, Sister Melanie, for always having the right words a t the right time.

On the path to his next life, my husband had experiences which he shared with us by our presence with him.
Three weeks before he finally left us, he had open heart surgery. Following it, he was in intensive care and had a lovely German nurse caring for him. He could speak a few words of German and so they conversed. This was remarkable since he had just under gone very serious surgery. He seemed to be doing very well and then a series of incidents caused him to decline.
As he was actively dying, he was taken again to the ICU and lo and behold, here is the same nurse. Sylvia, was her name. As she cared for him, she was humming and gently singing a lovely melody in German. When asked what the song was about…..She said, “It about Jesus and following him home.”
And that’s what happened…..my dear one followed Jesus and now he rests in peace with his God and with all of us who loved him so much.
I truly believe that those who die don’t leave us but join us in a new way.

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John McGuirk May 25, 2020 at 10:23 am

It is my hope, when the time arrives (I’m 80 now); God will be understanding of me in His Judgement. I often read the poem: “Live Your Dash,” and share with friends who have lost a loved one. I am sure there is a copyright on it so I merely send it to you, as a friend. Hopefully, it will help some of your readers.

THE DASH
the poem by Linda Ellis
I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end.
He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but he said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.
For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth and now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not, how much we own, the cars… the house… the cash. What matters is how we live and love and how we spend our dash.
So think about this long and hard; are there things you’d like to change? For you never know how much time is left that still can be rearranged.
To be less quick to anger and show appreciation more and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before.
If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile… remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.
So when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash, would you be proud of the things they say about how you lived your dash?

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Jean Canatsey May 25, 2020 at 11:50 am

It’s raining this morning and my tears are also flowing. In my 80 years I have had many experiences of death, some more profound than others.
The first one that comes to mind is standing at the open coffin of our 2 1/2 month old grandson, Tyler, who was a presumed SIDS death. Our 15 year old daughter, Melanie, was encouraged by the priest to touch him. When she did, tears began to flow and she said, “How can we be so sad when he’s so happy?” I pray for Tyler to intercede for me each day.
The second is writing a letter to my dying father in 1971 (I was pregnant with Melanie, our 7th child.) and telling him that I remembered reading that “a child who had walked in the woods with their grandfather had seen the face of God.” That letter began a lifelong habit of journaling.
The third was being in Okinawa visiting our daughter Melanie and her family when my mother had a massive stroke and died before I could return home. I was sitting in our daughter’s living room at 10 pm the night before our return flight when I felt a flutter and turned to my husband and said, “Mother just died.” I did not have a close relationship with my mother and had always been afraid that I would feel “nothing“ when she died. My fear was alleviated in that moment. God provides.
The forth was the grieving of our Australian Shepherd, Emily, when our little blind and deaf dog, Jake, died. Emily had been Jake’s companion and eyes for a long time and we tried to protect her from the reality of his death. I will always regret that because she howled and cried for days. Even animals need to say, “Goodbye”.
It just occurred to me that each of these events somehow included Melanie. Even Jake’s death because he had once been Melanie’s dog.
I would like to recommend the book,”Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat” by Dr. David Dosa.

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Tom May 25, 2020 at 3:03 pm

Dear Melannie,

I recall that the first death I was privileged to be present at was that of Msgr. Larry Cahill, whom I had known during my days in the seminary. Now I was ministering to him in my roll as chaplain at Charity Hospital. His was a peaceful passing and I chuckled, recalling that just a few days before the hospice staff wanted a psychologist to speak to him, misinterpreting his sense of peace with an unrealistic expectation of recuperating. They had underestimated his deep roots of faith in the promise of eternal life.

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Cathy May 25, 2020 at 5:00 pm

Thank you for your remarks and for sharing the beautiful stories. My husband died from cancer nearly 13 years ago; I was singing some of his favorite hymns when he suddenly stopped breathing.

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Christine May 25, 2020 at 7:13 pm

Dear Sr. Melannie:
I just want to comment on the music videos you provide and today’s in particular. You have a knack for picking just the right song(s) for whatever your topic of the day is! I don’t know how you do it, but I certainly appreciate it. Today’s video was exeptionally beautiful! Thank you for your insightful writings, some of which I see in Living Faith. You are in my prayers; may God continue to bless you in your endeavors and please stay safe and well!

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Charlene May 26, 2020 at 5:06 pm

Thank you for posting this message Sister Melanie and the most beautiful song helping us to transition our sadness of losing someone to the joy Jesus has prepared for the faithful, by His suffering and death.

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PJG May 27, 2020 at 8:30 pm

I have all my arrangements in place including the urn purchased and in storage at a monastery in Iowa. After my mom’s funeral I knew I didn’t want my children to go thru what I did to choose music, pallbearers, readings, memories. I have an advanced directive and my parish office has a copy of my wishes. I want it to be a time to laugh and remember me not labor over music and readings. It’s a gift to your family to have this in place even if they aren’t comfortable at first when you do it. Pray about getting this in place for your loved ones. God bless.

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Deb May 31, 2020 at 10:34 am

S. Melannie, I appreciate reading your last two posts and did not realize how personal they would become. My mother died Nov. 24, 2019. My sisters and I were with her when she took her final breath. We had her funeral the day before Thanksgiving. There were blizzards that occurred that week (in ND & MN) that prevented us from burying her. Mom was cremated after her funeral. My siblings and I recently scheduled June 6, 2020 to have her burial. May 28th, we received word that my youngest brother was found deceased in his home, having died probably two days earlier. Robert lived alone. Robert lived with schizophrenia for at least 35 of the past 53 years of his young life. My mom tried with all her might to always make sure Robert was doing ok. In her last years, she lived with dementia, which made it a bit harder for her. While my mom was dying, she kept stretching her hands upward, maybe to Jesus. When Robert took his last breath, I bet she was now stretching her arms to him and embraces him, both of them having their minds healed. The image in my mind of their embrace is comforting to me, knowing that Robert was physically alone at his death. I am also comforted knowing that while most of his life Robert battled voices in his head, now he only hears the voice of Jesus. Jesus said, “I will go to prepare a place for you”. Rest in peace baby brother in that special place. He will be buried along with my mother on June 6th. Thank You for sharing your special words.

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John Milcetic June 6, 2020 at 5:38 am

Sister Melannie,

I know weeks have passed since you posted this blog and most folks have stopped reading it and the following comments, yet in the years I’ve been following Sunflower Seeds, never have I been so moved as to find myself worthy of responding.

With every small vignette of death you wrote of, and each recounting of a moment shared by your readers, I was touched to the core of my being- both by the poignancy of each story, and the honesty and lack of pretense in their telling.

In this past month, as my brothers and I have been caring for our ailing mother Anica, I’ve been recalling the deaths of both my father and my sister. My thoughts have been stirred to the imminent death of our Mom, and of course, my own passing from this present life.

I pray that I be mindful of every living moment to all the beauty and ugliness, grief and joy, love and grace we are given to share by our beloved Creator.

I thank you Sister Melannie, and all like you who spread the joy and love of the living Christ with such compassion!

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