Preparing for death as a way of life.
May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By WILLIAM DOINO JR.
A Little Guide for Your Last Days
Death comes calling for us all, though few people are ever actually prepared for it. Two years ago Jeffry Hendrix, a Methodist minister turned Roman Catholic, received the news we all dread: a diagnosis of terminal illness. In his case, it was kidney cancer, leading to surgery and chemotherapy.
The illness dramatically changed not just Hendrix’s day-to-day activities, but his whole outlook. A Little Guide for Your Last Days was written in response to his circumstances, and is a meditation about mortality. Though brief, it is a book of unusual power; and while distinctly Catholic, its themes remain universal. Its opening lines are stark and direct:
It was not always so, writes Hendrix. Death used to be at the forefront of man’s consciousness. Memento mori, the Latin phrase meaning “remember you must die,” was woven into our cultural fabric, as was the supernatural awareness of our dependency: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Today, we still interest ourselves in death—only because we must, as it intrudes upon us every day—but it is a paradoxical interest, one that keeps its distance and employs protective shields. As Hendrix notes, “Mortality, being so hidden and kept from the general awareness,” makes death a thing of fascination—“as long as it is someone else who is being so fascinating.” Speaking or thinking about death in the first person is disquieting, out of step with the daily march of life.
This brief volume examines the flight from mortality, what Ernest Becker described as our collective “denial of death.” Hendrix finds the great mass of individuals bouncing upon the surface of life, never inquiring about the fate that awaits them. Their attitude is understandable: No one wants to be told when the clock strikes midnight, and the apprehension death can provoke in anyone can be intense. Hendrix doesn’t hold back describing his own fears.
In searching for answers, however, Hendrix recounts how he came to find them in Catholicism. Through the sacraments, he has received peace and strength; he writes about the loving presence of God, the redemptive power of suffering, and the comfort prayer and confession bring. It is a moving narrative, even as he knows that many readers will not share his beliefs. He doesn’t argue with them: This is not a work of apologetics but a series of gentle observations, for anyone open to the transcendent.
Indeed, there is a psychological depth here that rewards a second reading. Anyone who has ever lost a close relative or friend knows what the immediate days and weeks afterward are like, with feelings of intense pain, isolation, disbelief, and an acute awareness of the fragility of life. Hendrix underwent a similar experience after his diagnosis, except that in his case it was because he was losing himself and his attachments to this world. He has emerged with a renewed appreciation for the gifts he once took for granted—family, friends, faith, and (shortened) life—for even as his “outer nature is wasting away” his soul is “being renewed every day.”
Self-gratification is more appealing than gratitude, and few people want to stop and address the consequential questions Hendrix asks: “Why am I still here, and what am I supposed to do with the time I still have left?” One thing the terminal should not do, he writes, is engage in frenetic activities as if nothing were wrong; such escapism only breeds disappointment and a realization that nothing has changed. Acting responsibly, by making sure you don’t leave behind unnecessary burdens to loved ones, is encouraged; above all, people facing death should never succumb to resentment, or blame others for not understanding their circumstances.
Mortality is a delicate subject, and easy to treat superficially. A Little Guide avoids such pitfalls by staying centered and conveying Christianity’s hope. It is also an eloquent plea to break through our carnival culture, and a reminder that we are all, inescapably, living out our last days—even if we don’t yet know the number of them.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to First Things and other publications.