Death and Dying

Update, 8 Jan. 2009: Fr. Neuhaus died this morning. RIP.

Father Richard John Neuhaus is apparently near death (again) himself, and as he lies in hospital, it seems well worth reading his wise and often amusing words on death, including his own near-death (or, as he says, ‘near-life’) experience, as they appeared in the Catholic magazine First Things in Feb. 2000.

A few excerpts:

Death is to be warded off by exercise, by healthy habits, by medical advances. What cannot be halted can be delayed, and what cannot forever be delayed can be denied. But all our progress and all our protest notwithstanding, the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent.

Death is the most everyday of everyday things. It is not simply that thousands of people die every day, that thousands will die this day, although that too is true. Death is the warp and woof of existence in the ordinary, the quotidian, the way things are.”

“It is death in the singular that turns the problem of death into the catastrophe of death. Thus the lamentation of Dietrich von Hildebrand: ‘I am filled with disgust and emptiness over the rhythm of everyday life that goes relentlessly on — as though nothing had changed, as though I had not lost my precious beloved!‘”

“No doubt many people feel they have been helped by formal and informal therapies for bereavement and, if they feel they have been helped, they probably have been helped in some way that is not unimportant. Just being able to get through the day without cracking up is no little thing. But neither, one may suggest, is it the most important thing. …

“There is a time simply to be present to death — whether one’s own or that of others — without any felt urgencies about doing something about it or getting over it. … The worst thing is not the sorrow or the loss or the heartbreak. Worse is to be encountered by death and not to be changed by the encounter. There are pills we can take to get through the experience, but the danger is that we then do not go through the experience but around it.”

“Tentatively, I say, I began to think that I might live. It was not a particularly joyful prospect. Everything was shrouded by the thought of death, that I had almost died, that I may still die, that everyone and everything is dying. As much as I was grateful for all the calls and letters, I harbored a secret resentment. These friends who said they were thinking about me and praying for me all the time, I knew they also went shopping and visited their children and tended to their businesses, and there were long times when they were not thinking about me at all. More important, they were forgetting the primordial, overwhelming, indomitable fact: we are dying! Why weren’t they as crushingly impressed by that fact as I was?”


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