The Gift of the Dying Person

Ruth Ashfield

“Through the vulnerability and dependence of the dying person, we discover a call to reach beyond ourselves to those around us and ultimately to God Himself.”



“It seemed so strange; no one seemed to want to look at me.”2 These words, spoken by a dying woman called Louie to Doctor Cicely Saunders encapsulate our struggle to face the deepest questions of meaning hidden in every moment of suffering and of which the dying person is a visible reminder. They highlight also the subsequent isolation of the dying person which our fear creates and which can only increase their suffering, since suffering is intolerable when nobody seems to care. And yet, Louie’s words are also words of hope because they were spoken to a woman who was looking at her and who had dedicated her life to living alongside those who were dying and to improving their care. Saunders had discovered that in learning to look at the dying person and to care for him, we can find a resting place for all the questions of meaning we encounter in the mystery of suffering. Louie’s words call us to turn our attention to the dying, and in so doing we too may discover truths about the human condition which will enrich our understanding of life.

It should not be surprising that death holds a particular challenge for modern man since it calls into question our understanding of freedom as pure autonomy and of the person as a self-sufficient individual. How can my freedom be a lack of any limitation when I am “limited” by death? Death, the one certain thing in life, that from which I cannot escape, seems to be an assault on my freedom. Where is my personhood if I am completely dependent on others? And yet we shall argue here that an attentive examination of the lived experience of physical suffering and dying reveal that it is within these very experiences that I can discover the true dimensions of my freedom and the destiny of communion to which I am called. For it is the gift of the dying person to call forth from his community and his culture true compassion—and compassion is never one-sided—as what is necessary for real communion.

To focus our exploration we will look at the work of Cicely Saunders (1918–2005), whose contribution to these questions is remarkable. She is universally recognized as the founder of the modern hospice movement; her work caring for the terminally ill as a nurse, social worker, and finally a physician has changed the face of palliative medicine around the world. Saunders combined a determination for professional excellence with a deep Christian faith, making concrete an ethic of care which provides the highest quality medical attention in a thoroughly holistic framework. Her writings contain a wealth of wisdom born directly from the experience of caring for the dying and will be frequently drawn upon in what follows.

It is this experience of the dying person and of those caring for him which will remain at the heart of this article. This approach is undertaken following in the footsteps of Blessed Pope John Paul II and others who see that man’s experience of life and love draws him to wonder, to search, and points him towards a fullness of meaning that only comes to light in an encounter with Love in the person of Christ. Both Saunders and John Paul II, enlightened by Christian faith, discovered in the experience of the suffering and dying person a privileged manifestation of the continuity between human experience and Christian revelation. It is beyond the scope of this article to address the theological underpinning and consequences of all that will be discussed; rather, the focus will be on how these experiences can open man to such a revelation of love and so be transformed from within when lived in expectation of it.

In Part 1, man's quest for meaning and its relation to the body will be explored in order to propose a language of the suffering and dying body which points us towards meaning. Part 2 will examine the specific needs of the dying person and show how the only adequate response to the mystery of death lies in compassionate presence. The consequence of such a response will be explored from the perspective of the dying person in Part 3 and from the perspective of the community surrounding him in Part 4.

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