Witnessing character emerge in death

Commentary by Chaplain Bill Patterson

Over the years, my work has led me to journey with palliative care patients. I have accompanied many as they and their families struggled through this final leg of life's journey. As years have gone by, a remarkable discovery has unfolded for me which I feel compelled to share.

Face after face of patients and family members come to mind; they are all ages and come from all walks of life. As my time and experience with them passed, I came to realize that I had witnessed over their journey the emergence of deep reserves of character. Day by day, as people faced their own approaching death or that of a loved one, they evidently reached into internal recesses and intrinsic character traits would emerge. This phenomenon now strikes me with something approaching awe.

One man in particular comes to mind whom I journeyed with over a year. He was retired military and had been an active hockey player and coach. One day in his hospital bed, he stated, "I am very concerned about how my youngest son is taking this." Grief was evident in his glistening eyes. I replied, "You know, it doesn't take a man not to cry but it does take one to cry." He paused, internally wrestling, then with apparent resolution pulled the sheet over his head and sobbed like a child. 

A few months later, out of the blue during a visit, he turned his head on the pillow and looked me straight in the eye. His own eyes revealed a firm presence of mind as he stated, "My good friend, it has been quite a ride, hasn't it?"  

"Yes it has," I replied. "It's been quite a party." He paused a moment before adding, "You know, through all we've shared together, with all we've found in common, I have completely reconnected with my spiritual roots. I know without a doubt where I'm headed and I'll be together soon with my wife." A few days later he was gone.

As we bonded over time in this realm of the ultimates, a steadiness, an authority and remarkable presence of mind came to the fore as mortality drew closer. The patient came to exhibit a calm, a resolve within. This I witnessed in various others—including my own wife—as in their last days or hours they steadied struggling family members with their solid presence of mind.

Inevitably, too, I witnessed among these patients great struggles as they wrestled with going gently into that good night. Life's colours gain their deepest hues during this final stretch of life's journey. I beheld those hues grow vivid in the bravery and the honesty revealed in men and women as we travelled together seeking their meaning in their mortality. As they discovered their life and death to be a composite whole, so I discerned an internal integration taking place which gave an authority and fibre to their nature that held firm even amidst the assaults of end-stage illness. I have repeatedly been humbled, privileged at being present with people who left me knowing that somehow they died in victory.

Like many of us, I ask myself: could I fight the good fight and finish the race of life right to the finish line with ever-growing resilience and character, as did those I journeyed with? Is there hope that, like these men and women, reserves of resilience might arise within my being in the face of such adversity? Indeed, I believe there is great hope of this for each of us as I witnessed it unfolding in such a vast cross-section of people. At this climactic stage of life's race, I believe, there is within you and me a God-given reserve of strength and nobility to draw on, one that is truly given.

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