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Dying joyfully

I am writing about death and dying—more specifically about dying joyfully. A contradiction in terms, right? But is that really the case? Is there really no joyful side to dying? No upside to the downside of impending death?

And, for us Christians, has not death already lost its sting according to St. Paul? Has not Christ conquered death by His resurrection from the dead?

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I must admit that I have been extraconscious of my own mortality for some time now. My father passed away at the early age of 61 and ever since I myself hit 61 some years back, I have considered every year a bonus year. This mindful awareness and my fascination with death deepened when I had a near-fatal heart attack in 2006 and when I came face to face with near-death patients in a hospital during my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) chaplaincy training in Hawaii. Since then, I have developed an interest in death, in caring for the dying and learning from them about dying, so that I eventually started to look out for resource material on the subject.

I discovered Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ “On Death and Dying,” the classic book by one of the most eminent writers on the subject. Going through what the dying had to say to doctors, nurses, clergy and their own families makes it very interesting reading. Other than the introductory chapters on the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, the book is largely devoted to actual interviews given by severely ill and dying patients to a class of medical and pastoral care professionals and those in training to fill these roles.

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Kubler-Ross’ main purpose is to enable us to accompany the dying in such a way that both the dying and the living are enriched by enhanced human intimacy. She teaches us how to understand the death of a family member or loved one and how to cherish the final moments with them. She also inspires us to learn how to care for and understand the dying patients and their family members. She assists the reader how to render care and compassion by depicting the true-to-life experiences of those who are dying. Overall, the book grabs at your heart and pulls you inside your innermost self.

While in Honolulu during my CPE training in 2006-2007, I met Prof. Mitsuo Aoki, founder of the University of Hawaii’s Department of

Religion, and took interest in his work. For several decades he showed others how to consider death not merely as an end but as a vital and inseparable part of living joyfully. He showed this graphically in a documentary video he titled “Living your Dying.” He also brought spirituality and true compassion into the care-giving for the dying. His approach takes the patient to a state of “conscious dying” that leads to a fuller, and even joyful, living. He taught that the last days and hours of a human life are wondrous and a time when people must, he said, “allow death to be death. We’re so fearful, we diminish death. So live your dying.”

Aoki who also believed that love is more powerful than death, died surrounded by family and friends in August 2010 after living his dying.

Last year, I bought and read “Chasing Daylight” by Gene O’Kelly. This is a beautiful little book that can stand alongside other classics on death and dying such as Mitch Albom’s “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

O’Kelly’s moving account of his life and dying days will give everyone who reads it some profound issues to consider. Within a year, his life turned around from being the powerful CEO of a huge American company to a doomed but “blessed” (his word) man. The book is a wonderful, lucid account of his last three months which he spent planning his life. He trained himself to live in the present, to find those perfect moments that crystallize the beauty of life, and to say his farewells to his friends, family and loved ones. In following his plan, and to his surprise, he attained what he had been after all along: peace.

Finally, I recently watched for the nth time a film about dying titled “The Bucket List” and starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson.

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The movie tells the story of blue-collar mechanic Carter Chambers (Freeman) and billionaire hospital magnate Edward Cole (Nicholson) who meet for the first time in Cole’s hospital after both had been diagnosed with cancer. They become close as they undergo their respective treatments and find common ground in their having only a year or less to live.

Chambers makes a “bucket list,” or the things he wants to do before he “kicks the bucket.” Cole discovers the list and tells Chambers that the two of them should do the things listed. He promises to pay for everything. Chambers agrees after a brief argument with Cole.

The movie goes on to tell an unusual story of two men living their dying with joy as they accomplish their “bucket list.” They forge a deep friendship and arrive at realizations on the true meaning of their lives and what they mean to their loved ones. In the end, death becomes more of a friend than an enemy, and the grave a true resting place symbolized by empty coffee cans of Chock full o’Nuts atop Mount Everest.

Like the message of Aoki and O’Kelly, the clear lesson of the movie is that death is a part, and not the end, of life, and that we can live our dying with joy even now as we await the final call for our departure.

I will turn 73 on Jan. 22. And certainly, I plan to spend my remaining years in the “predeparture” area “living my dying” joyfully.

Danilo G. Mendiola, a retired HR and admin practitioner, does volunteer work in his Quezon City parish as a pastoral counselor. He has four children and four grandchildren.

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