C.S. Lewis once pointed out, while commenting on the massive fear that accompanied the invention of the nuclear bomb, that all of us were doomed to die whether the bomb existed or not, and that most of us will die in horrible ways. When I first read that it seemed almost funny. It was certainly true. Most of us dream about the “perfect death:” to die peacefully in your sleep at a ripe old age. Most desire it, but few achieve it. Very few. My great-grandfather was counted among the lucky ones. He died peacefully at the age of 101. I believe he was making a sandwich when his heart gave out. It happened quickly and presumably without much pain.
But my grandfather wasn’t so lucky when he died. He was in great pain for days before the end. He struggled and moaned under the weight of the painkillers. He could not even put on a brave face for his family: the drugs robbed him of that. It was a horrible way to die. In that sense it was very natural. Most death is horrible.
I don’t find that sentiment as funny anymore.
I have been blessed with getting to know my wife’s grandfather quite well. He lives in the same city where my wife and I went to college, and my wife stayed in a little apartment above his workshop before we got married. I got to spend a lot of time sitting on the couch across from him, watching TV and talking about cars and life. He’s a wonderful man who really loves God and loves others. He also has a wicked sense of humor: when he gets together with his best friend you’d think they were worst enemies the way they toss insults at each other.
For some time now he’s suffered from several different medical conditions. His kidneys keep failing, and he’s been on and off dialysis for years. He finds the dialysis extremely painful, and becomes listless and weak in the days following a dialysis session. His heart is weak, so blood doesn’t properly circulate in his legs which leads to pain, numbness, and infections. A few months ago one of his legs had to be amputated because of this. He is often in pain, and his “good days” come and go almost unpredictably.
I’ve often thought that it would be nice to be retired, to be able to sit around and watch TV or work on your hobbies all day. When I look at my wife’s grandfather I can’t be jealous. He has all the time in the world, but most of it is spent in pain. He has trouble sleeping. He can’t work on his cars anymore. Over the past several years he’s been slowly preparing to die. He auctioned off almost all of his tools and his collection of automobile memorabilia. His health is bad, and he’s ready to go. Yet for some reason he’s still here (and my wife and I, and all who love him, are grateful for that). I wonder if this is the kind of death I have to look forward to. Will my twilight years be full of drawn out pain and weakness? Or will my death be like my grandpa’s: an unexpected and terrible end to an otherwise idyllic retirement?
I don’t hold out much hope that I’ll die peacefully while making a sandwich.
All of this seems very morbid, but I think it’s something we need to think about more. Too often we try to insulate ourselves from suffering and death. We try to cut them out of our lives and our thoughts. The medievals had a different value. The prized the memento mori: something to remind us that we will die. Many medieval scholars and priests kept human skulls on their desks to remind them that someday they too would nothing more than bones. Franciscan monks in Portugal made an entire chapel out of human bones to serve as a memento mori to all who entered it. The engraving above it’s door reads Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos: “We bones that are here await your own.”
The simple fact is that we will all die, and we will all suffer. Some of us will suffer greatly before the end. We should not deny this fact but accept it. That way we won’t be dismayed when suffering does come. Instead remember that this world is not the end, that suffering can strengthen us if we let it, and that we can survive more than we might imagine.