I volunteered over ten months as a lay chaplain for a nursing home in Connecticut back in the late 1980s and found it to be one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of my young adult life. Alongside the countless joyful and rewarding moments that came from my time of service, I found myself ambushed again and again by a profound sense of distress over the terrible feeling of abandonment so many of the residents had; feeling forgotten by loved ones and by their faith communities. A number of the residents died while I was there, and most of the ones I spent time with died with no family members at their side.There was one woman I would meet with every day. She was very intelligent and cultured, in her eighties and in addition to being bedridden, suffered from depression, in part because she was estranged from her children and grandchildren. She appreciated our daily conversations and expressed to me before she died how deeply she regretted having no contact with her family. Though I felt for her, I had no idea how to help facilitate any reconciliation or help her achieve her desire to see them before she died. The staff counselor explained to me what they could and could not do to intervene, but in the end nothing could be done and she died without the support of loved ones.
Before she died, she frequently complained to me that she felt like she served no purpose in the world and that her life had been reduced to taking pills and waiting to die. I tried to share with her my own faith, but her pain seemed to have hardened her against trust and her alienation from her children filled her with such shame and regret that she appeared incapable of believing her misdeeds were pardonable by God or man. I remember one day I said to the counselor, “The only way for her to find peace is to reconcile with her children.” It’s so sad that she never did.
This is precisely what I love most about Five Wishes – that it helps avoid this situation. Five Wishes intentionally focuses one’s anticipation of life’s “last things,” not just on the practicalities of legal and medical considerations (important as they are), but also on what is most essential in life: family, love, faith. No one should die without these things, and anything that can be done to facilitate a good and life-affirming death marked by what is most essential, should be done.
Tom Neal, PhD is Academic Dean and professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana and author of the popular blog Neal Obstat.