Accompaniment at the Hour of Death
Family and friends offer peace to dying loved ones through prayers and spiritual care.
A few weeks after nursing-home visits were restricted nationwide because of the coronavirus, Mary Pavek’s 87-year-old mother died at a residential care facility in Boise, Idaho, though not from COVID-19.
Six weeks after her death, Pavek’s father, who was 92 and lived in the same facility, died, as well.
Pavek, who had been very involved in her parents’ care before the lockdown, believes their confusion and pain when in-person family visits ended contributed to their deaths. Since she could only be with them briefly while they were actively dying, Pavek prayed more for her parents while at her own bedside than at theirs.
As of late May, almost 104,000 had died from COVID-19 in the U.S., and 43% of the deaths occurred in residential-care facilities, according to Forbes magazine. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, restricted nursing-home visits nationwide this spring.
Whether or not families and friends can visit their dying loved one, the pandemic is affecting end-of-life experiences for many. Even if the dying person and their family and friends can’t be together, the need for prayer — and the effectiveness of that prayer — does not change.
“For God, there is no wall; there is no time; there is no space,” said Fernanda Moreira, who prays regular Eucharistic Holy Hours for the dying with the apostolate she started — the Cincinnati-based Apostolate for the Dying, which promotes these Holy Hours in prayer groups around the country.
“He’s always present, so no matter where you pray, no matter how you pray, God always hears our prayers and helps those that need them,” she said.
Even if not in person, families should find out their loved one’s end-of-life preferences and what the Church teaches about preparing for death, said Tammy Ruiz Ziegler, a Fredericksburg, Virginia, perinatal bereavement nurse who trained as a chaplain and blogs about end-of-life and other issues.
If the person is already lying in bed, she said, “I get a low chair and sit down and listen, so [dying] people are talking down to me and not up to me.”
Family members should make sure a priest has been notified to give the person last rites, Ziegler said, adding that priests, who come to administer the sacrament, can’t always be present for the entire death vigil, so families should consider how they can help spiritually.
If the dying person has COVID-19, it may not be possible for them to receive last rites, but God’s mercy for them is great, and loved ones can intercede for that mercy, said Dr. Bryan Thatcher, a medical doctor and founder of Eucharistic Apostles of the Divine Mercy, a Riverview, Florida-based lay apostolate of the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. The apostolate promotes the Divine Mercy message, including in Eucharistic adoration for the sick and dying.
Unfortunately, families may not have the chance to have those important conversations, said Wendy Cichanski Caduff, caring ministries coordinator at the Basilica of St. Mary parish in Minneapolis. Scripture, stories and songs can help in talking about topics including gratitude, forgiveness and reconciliation, love and saying goodbye, she said.
When a person is dying from the coronavirus or is in a facility closed to visitors and can’t be with their loved ones, Ziegler suggested having an item placed in their room to remind them of their family. Also, phone or video calls could bring comfort, as the last sense to go is hearing.
A dying person is never alone, Moreira said. “I feel comfort to think really they are not dying alone,” she said. “Our prayers are there with them. I’m sure God is using these prayers to give comfort to many souls. … There are many ways we can pray and help save souls.”
Moreira’s apostolate has produced a booklet of prayers for the dying, available online or for a donation.
Praying in the dying person’s presence is often more intentional, said Father James Livingston, pastor at St. Paul in Ham Lake, Minnesota, who served for 12 years as a hospital chaplain in the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese.
“That’s a very cruel twist to this disease [COVID-19], because in the absence of being there, you have to be creative to have an intentional moment.”
If the family shares faith, prayer is “a shared experience that lessens the pain,” Father Livingston said. “If you are a person who is resistant to grace and to prayer, then it just adds to your anxiety.”
If Catholics can be with the dying person, he suggested encouraging family members — who may or may not be practicing their faith — to focus on a comforting aspect of care before turning attention to faith.
“You want to have a prayerful encounter, but also be attentive to the needs of the family members,” Father Livingston said. “Part of that is finding out what gives comfort to the person being cared for.”
That could be wiping their forehead or holding their hand, said Thatcher.
The dying most need, but often lack, trust, he said. “We have to trust God’s mercy,” Thatcher said. “The Lord said that’s the hour of death [for them], and they need [prayer] the most.”
The Chaplet of Divine Mercy, which is related to the idea of trust, is often prayed for the dying because Jesus promised when it is prayed he would be with them as a merciful Savior rather than a judge, Thatcher said.
The chaplet doesn’t have to be said at the dying person’s bedside, he said. In 1999 Pope St. John Paul II imparted an apostolic blessing to all the faithful who pray the chaplet before the Blessed Sacrament for the sick and dying.
“In the eternal now with God all things are present,” Thatcher said. “You are present with that person when you intercede for them. You don’t have to be at the bedside.”
The chaplet may not be familiar to some families, but they may join in a common prayer such as the Our Father, Father Livingston said.
Like the friends who lowered a paralytic through a roof to reach Jesus in the Gospel, family and friends’ prayers touch a dying person’s spirit, he said.
Even if family members don’t join in, one person’s prayers make a difference, said Kathy Wabick, founder of the Disciples of Divine Mercy in the Holy Face of Jesus, a private lay association of the faithful in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York. Members pray for the sick and dying and minister to the suffering through their Mother of Mercy House in Orchard Park, New York.
The unconscious may hear God through their loved ones’ prayers. Wabick experienced this with her comatose mother when she and other family members prayed the chaplet at her bedside in 1998. After the prayer, her mother sat up and shared a vision of heaven before dying, Wabick recalled. Among other revelations, Wabick’s mother said she could see the two children Wabick had miscarried years before present at the bedside to comfort Wabick.
The Lord is also present to families of the dying, Ziegler said. “God didn’t ‘kick us off the bus and drive away’ in that moment of grief,” she said. “He is there, and he is present with us, and I believe if we ask him for guidance, he gives it to us.”
In their ministries, Wabick and Moreira pray for the dying during Eucharistic Holy Hours, which enables them to intercede for those who don’t receive prayers in other capacities.
Wherever prayer groups, family and friends pray for the dying, they not only help the person find peace, they help themselves, Moreira said.
“I believe when we are praying for others for their salvation, automatically, we are praying for ourselves.”
Since Wabick grieved the loss of her mother after the revelation about her miscarried children, she has prayed with parents for their sick children and told them, “It’s okay to ask God why,” Wabick said. “It’s even okay to be angry, just as long as you take these sufferings to Jesus, just as long as you rest upon his heart and seek his face.”
Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.
Resources for Ministering to the Dying
At the Bedside of the Sick and Dying: A Guide or Parish Ministry, Family and Friends by Bryan Thatcher, M.D., and Kathleen M. Wabick, published in 2015 by the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, contains reasons to pray with the sick and dying, practical aspects of living the Divine Mercy message, pastoral-care issues, prayer and more. To order, visit ShopMercy.org.
Words of Comfort for the Dying, from the Apostolate for the Dying, contains meditations and prayers especially for families and friends who pray with and for the dying. Downloadable PDF is available here; or contact [email protected]
— Susan Klemond