As part of an ongoing series on various religious and cultural perspectives on death, I recently interviewed a priest about the Catholic approach to dying and after-death care. During the interview he shared with our audience a letter that had been written recently by a fellow monk from his monastery, Father Mark, who was dying of stomach cancer.
That letter was a poignant and instructive guide for how to approach death with three virtues that Father Mark said he valued most in his last days on earth: comfort, grace and gratitude. Father Mark, who has subsequently died, agreed to share his words and his wisdom with people far and wide, with a humble wish that others might be helped by reading about his experience.
Father Mark’s letter can be read in full here, but the following is a summary of the lessons shared by Father Mark as he lived his final days:
“Keep death before your eyes daily.”
Father Mark interpreted this quote from Saint Benedict quite literally as he recommended a meditative approach to death to help ease fear and live fully. He himself was able to find joy and positivity even within the natural anxiety that comes from facing death full on and acknowledging its inevitability.
Be willing to hear the truth.
Father Mark described unflinchingly how his doctors told him truthfully that there was nothing more they could do for him. He listened to their prognosis and embraced the limited time left for his life without fear.
Let go of curative treatment at the right time.
When it was clear that the cancer was spreading quickly Father Mark recognized that it was time to stop treatment and focus on saying goodbye, which was the motivation for writing the letter.
Embrace palliative care.
Father Mark described how helpful his palliative caregivers were in guiding his decisions for the last chapter of his life. With their advice he expressed his love to others, made amends and planned meaningful activities while he still had enough energy to pursue them.
Be grateful for everything.
In his letter Father Mark expressed his deep gratitude for life itself, love, his community, career, and spiritual life. He looked back upon his years of life as a blessing filled with rich meaning and growth.
See beyond sadness.
Because of his belief in an afterlife, Father Mark could express his sadness for all that was coming to an end in his physical existence but also look forward to something more that would continue on. His great faith allowed him to embrace his death with wonder and awe as he prepared for whatever lies next.
Through his thoughtful words Father Mark was able to translate his dying experience into meaningful advice that can change the perspective of all who read it from fear to peaceful acceptance of death. Indeed Father Mark accomplished his goal of achieving comfort, grace and gratitude in his own final days and also transmitted those three virtues to each of us who have received them.
We don’t need to be Catholic or even religious to grasp the meaning of Father Mark’s teaching, for he is communicating the universal language of death:
These are the words we were born to hear; this is the lesson we came here to learn: embrace life fully and look death in the face every day.
Thank you Father Mark for so generously sharing your last days and thoughts of life with us and for continuing, even in your death, to be an enlightened teacher.
About the Author:
Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the host of End-of-Life University and the author of “The Tao of Death” and the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying” Connect with her at karenwyattmd.com, on Facebook at fb.com/WhatReallyMattersWithKarenWyatt and on Twitter @spiritualmd