“I never wanted to be a burden to anyone!” Thus wails the woman taking another step downward in old age, the sometimes long decline into death, as she loses her ability to drive, or to walk, or control her bowels. (Elderly men usually skip the explanations and go straight to the sullen and cranky phase.)
If as pastor or chaplain I know the lamenter well enough, I’ll sometimes quip, “Oh, dear, I’m sure you’ve long been a burden to many.” I then go on to explain why not being a burden to others is not a very good standard for the good life.
They Are Drawing Conclusions
I call attention to the fact that the lamenter’s children and grandchildren, or other beloved young persons, are still watching and learning. They are drawing conclusions about their future from the behavior of those a generation older. “So what conclusions do you want them to draw about their own life in old age? That they will feel useless and miserable and that they would rather die? Or that even in their old age, they still have something to give and something to receive?”
Following Jesus, the burden of the Cross, is not something that we are permitted to lay aside when we’ve decided we’ve had enough. Nor does our cross ever license us to abdicate the charity we owe to others.
To the younger members of our own family, to nursing home aides and hospital techs, to assisted-living cooks and housekeepers, and to anyone who cares for us in old age, we owe the duty of a good example, a kindly consideration, the best humor we can muster, and especially gratitude for whatever care and support we receive. The wicked thief crucified next to Jesus died angry, resentful, and sarcastic, but the good thief died with respect and trust in Jesus on his lips.
The young might learn a similar lesson. You who care for the dying are tending to your future. If your charge is gracious and grateful, trusting and of good cheer, then resolve to imitate the good example God has generously given you.
All the more if your charge is sullen or nitpicky, ungracious or ungrateful. Resolve not to die similarly: You know how the bad thief only compounds others’ suffering. When you are frustrated at your care or the lack thereof, remember the patience evoked from you when you were the caregiver. When you are dismayed by your own weakness, remember the burdens you bore for others, and convert your dismay to wry amusement at your own dependence, a hint of the trust evoked from you for the day of Judgment. Remember to die well.
Fr. David Poecking is the pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton church in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. For another pastoral reflection on death, see This is Not Right.