Death of Aunt Pat

Parish Diary

Fr. Peter Daly

February 21, 2008


            My aunt Pat died recently. She was a few days short of her 91st birthday.

            A lot can be said about her long and satisfying life, but it is her dying that I want to focus on. Her death reminds us of how important the presence the Church can be in our living and dying.

            The first thing to note about her death is that she was fortunate to be visited by a priest. I anointed her twice. It helps to have a priest in the family.

            Two days before Aunt Pat died I got a call from my cousin Mike. He asked me to go anoint his mother and pray with her. In the phrase of my generation, he asked me to “give her the Last Rites.”

            Today it is nearly impossible to be sure that every Catholic is seen by a priest. There just aren’t enough priests. In some dioceses in the Midwest more than half of the parishes have no resident priest. In my own experience, I probably anoint three or four people per week, sometimes more. I have a nursing home and a hospital in the boundaries of the parish. I have 3,000 parishioners. I can’t be present to every one.

            The second thing to note is that people wait too long to call the priest. Often they wait until the person is unconscious or even dead.

            Sacraments are for the living, not the dead.

            The “Last Rites” include confession, communion and the anointing of the sick. Two of these “rites” require consciousness. I was glad that my aunt was still able to appreciate what we were doing. While she could not swallow, at least we could touch the Eucharist to her tongue.

            She was also able to pray along with us. When we made the sign of the cross, she followed. She joined hands and said the Lord’s Prayer with us. She held out her hands for the sacrament of the sick. She knew she was dying. She accepted it stoically, but she wanted the sacraments.

            The third thing about my Aunt’s death is that she was surrounded by those who love her as she went to God. Often this is not the case.  

            I was also glad that we had enough notice to allow me time to pick up Aunt Pat’s sister, my mother.  Mom is nearly 88. These two old women needed to see each other before death separated them. After all they had 9 decades of shared life. Only they could bring and receive the comfort of a lifetime to each other.  

            Catholics pray to St. Joseph for a happy death. By that we meant that we should die in a state of grace surrounded by those who love us. My aunt had a happy death. But many do not.

            Often people die alone. Recently I was called to the bed of a woman in a nursing home. She was alone. No family members visited her. She spoke only Polish. The staff told me that she was non-communicative. But I suspected that she was dehydrated. So I took a straw and put a few drops on her tongue. She moved. I put more drops on her tongue. She swallowed. Then she spoke weakly.

            I started the prayers. She made the sign of the cross. She was not non-communicative. She was ignored.  

            It is a great comfort to be recognized as a person when we are dying. We have a history. We have a faith. It should be honored, so as many as possible can die a happy death.