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What to Say and Do at Someone’s Bedside

With my mother in the hospital the past week (and at one point declining rapidly) I’ve had the opportunity to think about what my responsibilities are, as a Catholic, in these situations.

In my family, I’m the religious person who’s mocked for my boring, routine, fanatical life. Yet, anytime the family wants to add some meaning to an event or holiday celebration, I’m called upon to pray or speak. When there’s serious stuff to deal with, it’s suddenly my turn to take over. I get it.

Most of the time, it’s silly, but when people begin to suffer and face end of life issues, the normal distractions can no longer mask the problems and all the cool people disappear. At the deathbed, in the middle of the nights, it’s doctors, nurses, and the people who love you more than anything else.

When you’re there, what do you say?

These are big moments. Reality.

My mother entered the hospital on December 27th after suffering a mild stroke that left her with mild weakness in her left hand. She walked into the hospital on the day of the surgery, quite well. She went through surgery and was moved to her recovery room.

As she awoke, it appeared that she was in bad shape. My family was upset, but I comforted them, telling them that she’d be under the influence of the anesthesia for some time. The next day I spoke with her physician, who told me that these effects were not caused by the anesthesia. Something wasn’t right.

For several days, her condition didn’t improve. Then, on January 2, I received a phone call from my mother who was crying, panicking and begging me to come to the hospital because something was wrong. I could barely understand what she was saying. I knew something was seriously wrong.

When I go to the hospital, her doctor called me. She told me that the surgery was unsuccessful and that my mother’s condition was worse now than before. Her carotid artery, which was partially blocked had completely closed. My mother had suffered more strokes, one after another, in the hospital and her condition was getting worse and worse. She was barely able to move or speak, lying in bed–and I was the only person who knew what was going on.

My mother was trapped inside of her body. She had no idea what was going on and was terrified. She heard two stupid doctors discussing her situation in the hallway and knew something was wrong. The doctors and nurses were moving to treatments she didn’t understand and she felt like she was no longer in control of her own body or mind. She wanted me there to fix things and help her. Thankfully, I was able to do so.

I found out that the doctor had put my mother on Prozac, which lowered her blood pressure and almost killed her. Because of her circulation problems, she had to maintain high blood pressure to keep blood flowing to her brain. The medications brought her blood pressure lower and she was–it was terrible.

I honestly don’t know what would have happened if I wasn’t able to be with her. I learned an important lesson: our loved ones cannot be left alone in these situations. The hospitals are not responsible to care for our family members.

That was, by far, the worst day of my life but, thankfully I could tell that my mother felt safe now and we were together. And I wasn’t leaving.

Having the opportunity to sit with my mother on a night when it seemed like she might be at the end of her life, I was overwhelmed. She wanted no one there but me and she held my hand, cried and asked me to pray with her. She didn’t want me to leave. She wanted me to talk her through everything. She wanted me to protect her from the doctors whom she felt were killing her. I couldn’t say otherwise. She walked into the hospital and was now, a week later, barely alive.

I wasn’t prepared for this, at this time in life. I was busy. I was in the midst of accreditation work that’s due in a few weeks. I was in the midst of an intense 3 week course at Harvard. I was getting ready to start a new academic term in the Academy. The kids were getting back to school. Everything was upside down.

I learned another important lesson: our lives don’t slowly decline. Events can come unexpectedly that bring us to the hour of our deaths in a moment. We don’t age slowly. We age suddenly, and we need to be prepared for these moments. We can’t get lost in our own affairs.

I should have learned this before. I grew up with my grandmother, who loved and spoiled me my entire life. When I was 35 years old, I went on a missions trip to help the Missionaries of the Poor in Jamaica. While I was away on that trip, my grandmother died suddenly. I wasn’t able to be with her at the hour of her death. I never had a chance to say goodbye to her. I didn’t learn that lesson.

I learned it this time–and stopped everything.

Thank God my mother has faith. She can talk about eternal life and has the virtue of hope. She believes she is going to heaven and trusts in the Church. She is surrounded with assurances of God’s presence: prayers from the Dominicans, visits from priests and deacons, thoughts of her Sunday school students, etc..

What frightened her was not that the stroke affected her body. She knew there were physical effects and that was upsetting, but that wasn’t the problem. What frightened her was knowing that the stroke affected her mind. She said to me, “I can’t remember my prayers.”

That made me see how important the Hail Mary is. Throughout our life, when our mind is with us, we prepare for that day, saying,

“Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

Yes, we need to pray today for God’s protection at the hour of our death because we may not be able to pray for ourselves.

Second, it taught me how important it is to have Catholic friends to rely on in those moments, how important intercession is. I was able to ask the Dominicans to pray for my mother, which comforted her. I was able to be with her and say her prayers for her. I told her to just relax, listen and say “Amen.”

We prayed the Rosary and I was overwhelmed with emotion. I couldn’t stop crying. I wasn’t sad. I was just overwhelmed because I pray the Rosary every day thinking about these moments and the time had arrived. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Catholic faith and how generously the Church prepares us for these moments. I was emotional thinking of my mother, but I was overwhelmed by gratitude for the Church. I was so thankful to have the Rosary and have invested so much time in it, the fruits of which could be enjoyed at this time.

We prayed and, in God’s providence, it was a Wednesday night, so we reflected on the Glorious mysteries and prayed specifically for the graces they offer us: the Resurrection, the Ascension, Pentecost, the Assumption, the Coronation. The mysteries were comforting.

It was difficult to pray because if my thoughts wandered and I thought about my mother or thoughts of my life with my mother, it was too emotional. I fixed my eyes on her plain, white bedsheet and recited the prayers. Praying “now and at the hour of our death” was difficult to get through.

I could hear and feel my mother praying with me. I’d hear a few words here, a few there, then an “Amen”. I was surprised to see that she knew the Fatima prayer and especially prayed it after each decade.

By the time I finished, she had fallen asleep. It was a terrible day for her, but she made it, safely to bed, ending her day with a full Rosary. I was very relieved, feeling that I had done what was necessary.

I learned that everything that needs to be said at one’s deathbed is contained in the Rosary. Everything. The priest can come and administer the sacraments–that’s his job. The hours at the side of the bed, however, are not for a busy priest. They are for the family, and the family has to know what to say, and what to do. I know now that the Rosary provides everything and I’m thankful that, as a Dominican, I’ve devoted so much time to it.

I also spent time thinking about my father, who’s not a Christian. His time isn’t far off. What will I say to and do for him? It will be a very different situation.

As I thought about it, it became clear that I should ask him, very clearly, “Do you want to die as a Christian? If you do, I can baptize you right here.” I will repeat that every chance I get. No evangelical nonsense. No sinner’s prayer. No asking Jesus into your heart. Jesus said, “Go into the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28) St. Peter said, “It is baptism that now saves you.” (1 Peter 3).

That is in my power. Simple action.

Anyway…

Thankfully, I was able to have the doctors stop some of the medications and leave my mother in peace. Being with her and praying relieved her anxiety, the signs of which the doctors were trying to remove chemically. The next morning, she woke up and was calm. She told me that praying the Rosary made her feel better–and I could see that she looked better. The fog of confusion and fear was cleared away. She felt safe, had a Rosary in her hand and knew that we could pray through this. She was in bad shape, but she believes in God. She simply needed help praying. She needed intercession. She needed protection. She needed family to care for her.

I don’t blame the hospitals or doctors. They have a job to do and they’re often left to do it by the family members of the sick and dying. It’s not supposed to be so, and they’re used to it. When family arrives, the doctors and nurses are happy because they know that family offers much more relief than they can. Many of the problems they have to deal with are relieved by love.

Jesus taught us this.

“Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink…Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me. Then shall the just answer him, saying: Lord, when did we see thee hungry, and fed thee; thirsty, and gave thee drink? And when did we see thee naked, and covered thee? Or when did we see thee sick and came to thee? And the king answering, shall say to them: Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25)

We are supposed to do this for our neighbors, how much more our closest relatives?

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