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placeholder November 4, 2013   •   VOL. 51, NO. 19   •   Oakland, CA
End-of-life planning rarely tops a to-do list

Rev. Jim Sullivan

End-of-life issues are not ones most of us want to spend much time thinking about. Yet the need to think about them is real, as real as the end of life itself.

I am preaching to myself here: Despite diocesan specifications for our priests to attend to matters relating to their final wishes and their funerals, I have yet to set aside the time to even draw up a rough set of notes.

I suppose I come by this — call it reluctance, if you like — honestly. My mother only drew up plans for her end-of-life care and her funeral services in May 2010, four months before she died. Mom was in good shape in May 2010, and neither she nor myself nor my siblings guessed how soon we would need to have access to Mom's plans.

I am a priest and need to follow the Church's recommendations on matters pertaining to end-of-life care. But I only became a priest at 50, and prior to my ordination, I had developed a habit of speaking my mind. Habits can be hard to break.

'The Conversation'
Making End of Life Decisions

When: Wednesday, Nov. 6 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Immaculate Heart of Mary Church Hall, 500 Fairview Ave., Brentwood

Advanced directives: Kaiser Team Physicians; Pre-planning Funerals: Holy Cross Cemetery; Catholic View on Death: Rev. Jim Sullivan, Vitas Hospice Care: Steven Swenson

Mass for the Day of the Dead
at 4 p.m.

RSVP: Sandy Heinisch,
I personally see no advantage whatever in prolonging life once it is clear that the patient is going to die. Understand what I am saying here: I know the Church has set forth guidelines and I will certainly abide by them. But I desire NO extraordinary means whatever, for myself, when the time comes. Death, our faith tells us, is merely transition. Although there are a number of ways to die that scare me greatly, death itself, the transition to eternity, does not scare me, and I do not want my life prolonged unnecessarily and uselessly simply because medical science is capable of achieving such a prolongation.

I am aware that I need a brother priest on my medical directive. I already have one picked out. He is 20 years younger than I and he is at once faithful to magisterial teaching and sensible about on-the-ground reality, and I trust that, should he have to make hard decisions on my behalf, he will make them well. I honestly hope he never needs to exercise such authority, but then, don't we all honestly hope that? Many of us will go suddenly and with no fuss, no anguished decision-making. But many of us will not leave this world suddenly and unexpectedly; many of us will leave it slowly and predictably, and hence the need for my brother priest, also the need for my nieces in Oakland, who are like daughters to me, and who know my wishes, and will fight to see them honored.

This conversation, the end-of-life issues conversation, goes beyond the medical directive. I have been attendant at many deathbeds, as a priest. I have seen the huge graces which come into play when a Catholic receives the Last Rites. I have advice for all who find themselves dealing with the imminent death of a loved one: Please do not delay in calling for the priest. Sometimes folks tell me, "Father, we don't want to upset him. If he sees you, he will think he is dying."

No. 1, he (or she) is dying. No. 2, I do not have to tell the patient s/he is dying, and in fact, I never do. I did not tell Mom she was dying, and on the morning of the day she died, she spoke of leaving the hospital when she was able.

Dying Catholics have a right to the Last Rites. These rites are hugely powerful — please take my word on this. Though a call for the Last Rites is very frequently inconvenient for the priest, my own experience tells me that the graces the priest himself will receive from a prompt and full response are huge. I cannot tell you what it is to see the change in the faces of the loved ones, gathered in the ICU cubicle, when "Father" walks in. It is as if Jesus Himself has come to the family in that moment. It is tremendous for the family, for the dying loved one and for the priest.

If you know your loved one is going to die, has only days left to live, do not delay in calling for the priest. As I say, we priests know how to present ourselves to a dying patient in a manner that will not frighten them. There are some prayers that may be read silently, even while we anoint the person with the Sacrament of the Sick, and perhaps, depending on the patient's strength, hear a final confession and give Eucharist. I talked to my mother about how and when she would be able to walk out of the hospital the day before she died. Looking out for the emotional well-being of the dying patient is something all good priests know how to do instinctively. Do not delay in calling for us once you know the situation is only a matter of days.

There is also the question of services, once the loved one has died. It is important for all of us to recognize that the day will come when we are "the loved one who has died." What preparations have you made for your funeral, for your burial, for your family in those difficult days?

Don't think I am pointing a finger here at anyone but myself. As of this issue of The Catholic Voice, I have made zero preparations for my funeral or anything else.

Catholics should have the benefit of a full funeral Mass at the time of their deaths. I am always a little perplexed and saddened when a Catholic family tells me they want only a "parlor service" for the deceased at the mortuary. The Mass is the living sacrifice of Christ for our salvation — how could we not want Mass offered on behalf of our departed loved one?

The graces attached to the Mass, for the deceased, should not be underestimated. The full Catholic rites — vigil, funeral Mass and committal (graveside ceremony) — are a great gift we can give to our departed loved ones and we should not deny them this gift. My experience also tells me something about the genius of the Catholic funeral rites — they greatly assist us with acceptance and closure.

Finally, of course, there is the "business question," the matter of what you are leaving to whom. Sometimes the best of families can be divided, set against each other, over material possessions and money. It is crucial, really it is a matter of charity toward the loved ones who will survive us, that we "get our affairs in order" ahead of time, and leave a competent and fair, objective executor in charge of our estate.

If I were to die tomorrow, no one would know what I wanted, or how to proceed. I have allowed myself to continue with no medical directive, no funeral plans and no will because I assume that I will not die tomorrow. I owe it to my loved ones to get my affairs in order. If you do, too, let's engage "the conversation" now.

(Rev. Jim Sullivan is parochial vicar at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Brentwood.)

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