Sometime the Dying Want You to Shut Up

It was a honking big needle the nurse held up as my sister pulled up her sleeve. I really, really don’t like needles, but I stayed by her chair as the nurse pushed the needle into the underside of her upper arm. She found the one spot that wasn’t all bruised from IV needles. My sister thanked me as I wheeled her out of the doctor’s office. “I notice you stayed,” she said, and grinned a little. Sick as she was, my discomfort amused her.

Mine was a tiny act of friendship. Not a big deal, even for someone who intensely dislikes needles. It still meant something to a dying woman — at this point, the cancer had spread throughout her body — to have her brother stay with her as she got her shot.

Woody Allen said that “Eighty percent of success is just showing up,” and being with my sister showed me how much of the Christian life is just being there. It is not an easy lesson for some of us to learn.

Christianity answers our questions, sure, but it doesn’t always answer them as completely as we want. Sometimes the truth that you believe with all your heart doesn’t help you deal with pain. The truth can comfort you but it doesn’t comfort you in the same way that a friend sitting at your side comforts you.

Don’t Lean on Answers

I’m not saying the suffering should throw out their copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We need to know the big story to make sense of our own small stories. The Church tells us that our suffering matters and that the world still makes sense, that it’s still a good place, that everything works out for our good in the end. It tells us we can live in hope.

It’s not nothing to know that’s the truth about the cosmos. Anyone can say “God loves you,” talking about who knows what god. People do. It’s easy to say. It’s also often meaningless. You’re thinking that God loves you but you’d like a damned good answer for how he could love you and still let you (or someone you love) suffer like this. It helps to know what the real God has said about life and death, including yours.

Some of us — me, for one — tend to think that once we’ve explained something we’ve fixed it. We feel the need to explain, even to those who really don’t want to hear it. I’m not saying the answers aren’t important, but I am saying that we can’t lean on ideas, however true they are. Our suffering friends usually want us to talk to them about friends, or pray with them or watch tv with them, or just sit there and not say a word. They’re rarely big on an intense discussion of theodicy.

A friend told me about talking with a friend who’d just lost a loved one. He wrote: “I told my friend that all I really have for him are the platitudes about ‘God’s providence,’ etc., that I’m sure he’s heard before. Other than that I’m flying blind. He told me later that he found our conversation very helpful, but I’m not really sure how.”

I think his friend found the conversation helpful because he didn’t say stuff just to say stuff. It’s helpful to have someone speak realistically to you, even if all he says is “I really don’t have anything to say.” That’s the way to be there with a friend.

More Than Answers

Being with my sister for the six months she was dying, I learned better how much of the Christian life is just being there. We need the answers the Church provides, but not only the answers. Truth isn’t all that God gives us through the Church. He gives us himself and each other.

God gave us Christ in the sacrament. He’s there with us, all the time, in every church. He also gave us each other. He wants us to be there for each other.

Catholicism answers mankind’s most urgent questions. True, and crucial to know. But the practical truth is that sometimes we don’t need the answers in that form. The suffering need Jesus in the Sacrament and they need him in his people. We bring Jesus to others just by sitting with them, as the nurse holds up the honking big needle, and sometimes that by itself answers all the big questions.


David Mills is the editor of Hour of Our Death. His other articles can be found here. The story of Karen’s last day can be found here.

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