What to Do If a Family Member Is Dying on Their Own

News: Commentary
by Deacon Nick Donnelly  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  August 6, 2020   

The mystery of 'vicarious life'

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From a Catholic perspective, one of the most harrowing aspects of the Wuhan virus pandemic is learning that many of the faithful have died alone, without the consolation of family, friends or clergy. One of the most agonizing situations that we can face, irrespective of the virus, is knowing that a member of our family is dying, or has died, on their own, without the physical presence of those who love them at their deathbed.

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St. John Chrysostom

It can be a torment to imagine their last moments of earthly life, possibly feeling distressed, frightened and desolate. If they have been killed in an accident or as a result of violence, we wonder if they died instantly or how long it took them to die. If they died from a sudden, catastrophic illness or quarantined and isolated in hospital, we may imagine over and over their last moments of life. The shock of their death can cause us to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder that makes us relive every day the moment that we were told of their death.

Two Devotions

The Church gives us in particular two traditional ways through which we can both be helped in our grief and assist family and friends when they physically die alone. These two devotions are to the Holy Cross and to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. These traditional devotions derive their power from our intrinsic communion with Christ through the life of grace. Before looking at these traditional devotions in more detail, it will give us hope to listen to the wisdom of saints who put how we can assist our loved ones who die physically on their own into the perspective of the supernatural life.

Saint John Chrysostom writes that though distance separates us from our dying loved ones, "love unites us, and death itself cannot divide us" because through our baptism in Christ we are united in "one single body, sacramentally and spiritually" (The Divine Office). Our Lord was with them at their death, and because Jesus was there, we also can be there spiritually with them.

The Church gives us ... ways through which we can both be helped in our grief and assist family and friends when they physically die alone.

Saint Pio of Pietrelcina understood that with the glorified Lord, time doesn't exist, so our prayers for loved ones at their deaths can help them at the moment of death, even if it happened in the past: "Maybe you don't know that I can pray even now for the happy death of even my great-grandfather. For the Lord, the past doesn't exist, the future doesn't exist. Everything is an eternal present. Those prayers had already been taken into account. And so, I repeat that even now I can pray for the happy death of my great-grandfather" (Five Insights On Death And Dying From St. Pio Of Pietrelcina).

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The intimate communion between Christ and the Christian, through faith and baptism, means that we live and die in a radically new state of human existence that transcends the boundaries of space and time. This is what St. Paul means when he writes that through baptism, the Eucharist and all the sacraments, we live "in Christ" (2 Corinthians 5:17) and "in the Spirit" (1 Corinthians 6:17) and as members of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12–28).

To realize the hope within the tragedy of a family member dying physically alone, it is essential to grasp that the Body of Christ is not merely symbolic or metaphorical. We need to remember the startling reality of our new state of human existence. The Body of Christ expresses the reality that we live within the communion of the Body of Christ, (when free of mortal sin and in a state of sanctifying grace). This supernatural reality of our lives can transform how we understand and respond to this tragedy. Through our union in the Body of Christ, we can be with our loved ones spiritually at the moment of their death, even if we do not learn of it until after it has happened. And, as we can be with them, we can assist them in their death.

There are people who leave in their wake a surfeit of love, of suffering borne well, of purity and truth, which involves and sustains others.

"Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? ... For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:35, 38–39).

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St. Pio of Pietrelcina

Power of Vicarious Prayer

In a situation where a loved one has died alone without the assistance of a priest and members of their family, they are unlikely to have been able to see or hold a crucifix to bless the hour of their death. However, recalling the words of St. John Chrysostom and St. Pio of Pietrelcina — that our communion as Christians transcends distance and time — we can spiritually place, as it were, the wood of the Cross in their hands through our devotions to the Holy Cross. The Holy Spirit gives us this ability through the power of vicarious prayer. Pope St. John Paul II describes this type of prayer as a manifestation of our lives within the communion of saints, saying "This is the reality of the communion of saints, the mystery of 'vicarious life'":

Revelation also teaches that the Christian is not alone on the path of conversion. In Christ and through Christ, his life is linked by a mysterious bond to the lives of all other Christians in the supernatural union of the Mystical Body. This establishes among the faithful a marvelous exchange of spiritual gifts, in virtue of which the holiness of one benefits others in a way far exceeding the harm which the sin of one has inflicted upon others. There are people who leave in their wake a surfeit of love, of suffering borne well, of purity and truth, which involves and sustains others. This is the reality of vicariousness, upon which the entire mystery of Christ is founded. His superabundant love saves us all. Yet it is part of the grandeur of Christ's love not to leave us in the condition of passive recipients, but to draw us into his saving work and, in particular, into his Passion (Pope St. John Paul II, Incarnationis Mysterium).

Pope St. John Paul II further explained the grace to vicariously help others by quoting St. Paul, "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church" (Colossians 1:24).

Of course, Christ's sufferings are entirely sufficient to save everyone, as just one drop of his blood is enough to save all mankind, but by joining our sufferings to those of Christ, we can assist other members of the Church. Our anguish at the death of our loved ones on their own, expressed through our devotion to the Most Holy Cross, can vicariously assist them at the hour of their death if we pray with this intention of helping them.

This is an excerpt from Dcn. Nick's new book A Catholic Survival Guide for Times of Emergency, available from TAN Books.

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