Most of us reading this article are young women. While many of us are still healthy and strong, we may soon, if not already, find ourselves as caregivers for aging parents or other infirm family members.
Roles are reversed as we enter deeper into adulthood and those who raised us are no longer as strong as they once were. This can be a difficult adaptation for a family to make. It seems like the person in front of us is depleting before our very eyes, while the elder feels like he or she is losing more and more independence. They may even feel like a burden on the younger members of their family, and, at times, we may feel like it is too heavy to bear, too.
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Unfortunately, our secular culture encourages this kind of thought, as state after state legalizes physician-assisted suicide, claiming that ending your life yourself is more dignified than illness and disability. That statement could not be more wrong. As Catholics, we believe that God created each human being in his image, and that he is the one who measures our lifespan. Whether we can see it clearly or not, he has a purpose for each of us, for every moment of our lives.
A servant of Christ
My Grandmemere lived to be 104 years old. Toward the end, as all her friends and siblings had long since died, she began to feel like God had forgotten her. She wondered why she was still alive. But God was still working through her. The crowded church and long procession at her funeral testified to how many lives she touched, even from a wheelchair in a nursing home. She was Christ suffering to us, as we were Christ ministering to her, all the way to the end.
Servant of God Rose Hawthorne Lathrop wrote in 1902, “When they get so near death, they must be waited on, as if we really believed what, as Catholics, we say very often — that they represent Christ Himself to us.” That is so countercultural; yet, it is also so true. Christ is present in each of us, and we need to let him shine through each other. There is no death more dignified than that.
Even though she died almost a century ago, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop is a good intercessor for Catholics in the United States right now. In her own time, she also strove to protect human life in the face of a culture that abandoned them. The youngest daughter of famous American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rose grew up in a privileged but virtuous household. She and her husband, George, shocked the 19th-century literary world by converting to the Catholic faith at a time when much of the country was prejudiced against Catholicism. However, after their young son died of an illness, their marriage fell apart, and George’s intemperance eventually led to his own demise.
Rose, however, was drawn to spend the rest of her life serving Christ in the sick and dying poor of the New York City tenements. She was specifically called to care for the poor dying of cancer. At that time, cancer was believed to be contagious, and patients were abandoned by hospitals, friends, and family out of fear and disgust. After passing a nursing course, Rose moved into the tenements and began taking in homeless cancer patients, whom she cared for through death. Other women joined her, and eventually they formed a religious community that continues to provide free care to the poor dying of cancer today. Rose Hawthorne Lathrop’s cause for canonization is underway, and her charism shines through a culture that shrouds death with darkness.
Approaching death with dignity
From my experiences of journeying alongside people in the last years, months, weeks, days and moments in their lives, I have seen that infirmity and death does not have to be dark and gruesome. In contrast, those end times can be filled with the light and hope of Christ. Quiet times offer opportunities for reflection and prayer, while celebrations gather loved ones around in community. Little things like birdsong, a smile or a chocolate chip cookie are greatly appreciated. Joy can be found in everyday activities and conversations. Relationships with God and other people can be reconciled. Of course, there is fear and pain in the face of death, but even that can be a window for God to shine through when approached with faith.
The homes founded by Rose Hawthorne Lathrop continue to be places of compassion, peace and rest for those in their last days of life. This saintly woman served Christ to the end. It is something that we can strive for, too, as we care for aging and infirm loved ones in our homes as they approach their final days. Only then can we give them a true death with dignity.
Servant of God Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, pray for us!