Abiding with the Dying

ImageLike so many across the Midwest I am hunkered down watching massive amounts of snow fall outside my window. My kids have worn themselves out in the white stuff, and with a cup of coffee and plate of Christmas cookies I have a few moments to reflect on a recent visit to my parents and to my elderly grandmother.

My mother and father are the primary caregivers for my grandmother (97), who is now bedridden and rapidly loosing mental grasp of herself and her surroundings. Sitting with her is less now about conversation than holding her hand and reminding her that I am present. The tasks are without doubt more physically and emotionally arduous for my parents. Unlike them, I am not called upon to meet the daily challenges her care requires: scheduling nurses, carrying to the bathroom, monitoring health, anxiously waiting daily for the next sign of deterioration.

Being in the presence of the care my parents are offering confirmed something Ben Quash writes about in a lovely little book called Abiding. The dying ask three things of us above all else (quoting Dame Cicily Saunders): help me, listen to me, stay with me. Quash goes on:

The challenge of caring for a dying person is that the effectiveness of the usual tools and roles is relativized. The patients are not going to get better, and they do not need a ‘solution’ to something. What will often be most precious to them, instead, is people to undertake to ‘accompany’ them in what they are going through…The model of abiding that Jesus bequeaths to his disciples is not one in which the tick of the clock is accumulating units of expensive time, and the persons involved are either engaged in the targeted application of technical skill or professional know-how, but are attentively and mutually available to each other. They undertake ‘accompaniment.’

What I experienced first-hand with my grandmother, and strongly suspect my parents are as well, is the painful relativizing Quash describes. Our power to be effective, to exert ourselves in order to ‘make ultimately better’, is gone. Surely some pain can be relieved. Her body can be shifted so her skin does not wound, and medicines can be offered to treat infection and ease pain. But when I am in her presence I am made painfully aware that I cannot – nor can my parents – mend the process of her physical and mental deterioration. Dying cannot be stopped, and what she requires from us as she dies is a kind of courage; courage to care in ways that transcend what we are able to do for her.

Without at all depleting the value of actions which increase my grandmother’s comfort and the treatments which ease her pain (mental, emotional, or physical), the discomfort caused by the relativizing of our power to mend the process of dying is instructive. It reveals in me the presence of an overwhelmingly influential version of ‘care': to ‘care’ is to do for. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, has helped me more than anyone to see through the hollowness of this vision of care. ‘Caring as doing for’ is founded on the confidence in my own powers to fix and mend. And yes, in some cases my agency is called for, but ‘caring as doing for‘ leaves out the many cases in which the care others require is not, or not only, the exertion of  prowess to mend but the courage to share life ‘with’, to simple abide with another person.

Quash reminds us that care is not “just ‘activity’ that does certain things on another’s behalf, though is can be that too. It need not be goal-oriented, and it cannot always be measured by clear outcomes.”

It is not just working for. There is an element of the gratuitous about care. It is non-instrumental. It sees a value in abiding for its own sake. Care is itself, as a ‘way’ also its own ‘end.’

Or, perhaps better, care is a way of abiding with those whose justification is free of utilitarian or instrumental justifications because it is for God’s sake, and God is not an end like any other. It is unlike the paths that lead to earthly goals, to creaturely ends…The path of care does not give way to anything else, like the ladder that is kicked away when it has been scaled. The creatures cared for in the context of the way of care are not merely means by which we achieve the [goal] of pleasing God. 

And yet care can nevertheless and at the same time be a form of relationship with God. This is relationship with God as care for creatures.

Care such as this requires courage. It requires more courage – I am sure now – to offer the care which abides  than it does to offer the kind of care which goes into effect when I am called upon to do something for another.

The courage to abide with the dying is precisely what I saw my parents exhibit, but it was a courage I struggled to muster. I wanted to do for her but was primarily being called upon to simply be with her. The daily display of such courage is not as easily quantified, and I fear it goes unnoticed even to ourselves. Yet, it is this courage I hope my parents more and more recognize as present in their own caring. They are daily exhibiting this courage, and through recognizing it I hope the door would open wider to experience, as Quash describes it “relationship with God as care.”

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One thought on “Abiding with the Dying

  1. Interesting stuff. Turns out from my recent conversations with some Philosophy grad students, that there’s a whole “Care” Ethics movement or school out there.

    I seem to remember Heidegger talking some about that, years ago. But lots of other figures are being cited as the origin of what seems to be a major movement, developing out of Existentialism. Among other things, final dogmatism is avoided; morality is now an active process (as in Whitehead’s Process philosophy?). A process of “becoming”?

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