Rita was my age and she was dying from late stage lung cancer. She was tall, maybe six feet tall and big-boned. She said she’d lost a lot of weight, but now seemed at a good weight, not too thin. She had short gray hair, which had grown back after the last round of chemo. Shortness of breath and fatigue were her biggest symptoms. She was my patient; I was her chaplain. “I’m a lapsed Catholic,” she said somewhat apologetically. And she recited several things about the Catholic Church with which she took exception. I nodded. I asked her if she had ever tried any other Christian denominations? At first, she didn’t understand what I meant. Then, “oh, you mean like Baptists and Presbyterians and all that? No. I just always felt Catholic, even if I don’t go anymore. I went so much as a kid.”
During the time we spent together, Rita told me about several broken relationships she had with her alcoholic sister and her drug-addicted niece. They were huge enmeshed, conflicted situations and I referred her to AlAnon. She had been there before and seemed ready to go back. I felt relieved because I knew she needed the ongoing help of a sponsor.
“What concerns you most, Rita? When you awake in the middle of the night all alone, what comes up?” I asked. “I am afraid of dying. I don’t know if there’s anything after this life. Either there is a heaven, like the Catholics think, or there is another place.” She rolled her eyes, “a place I don’t want to go, you know what I mean, Michele. Or maybe there’s nothing at all. I have a hard time believing that. What do you think?”
“Well, I get that you’re afraid. No one really knows for sure, right? And at the same time, I think it would be good to decide what you believe. In my experience, people who have it worked out for themselves have an easier time facing their death.”
“Yeah, well, how do I decide?”
“Tell me about a time when you felt most deeply loved.” Rita told me about her deceased father. Growing up, she identified with him, rather than her mother. He took her everywhere in her hometown NYC with him: the meat packing district, walking around the burroughs, and to the Mass every Sunday. He was a devout Catholic. They were very close. She idolized him. Yet, as she became an adult she began to see his flaws and to judge him. She saw how generous he was with others but judged him as only trying to get people to like him. She began to think he was manipulative, tremendously weak and insecure. And she began to resent him.
Previously, she had told me a story where she had brought homemade cookies to the chemotherapy nurses, who were treating her in the outpatient cancer clinic. And she had judged herself for trying to get them to like her. I recalled this to her, challenging her. “You acted with generosity. It didn’t matter about your motives at all. It was your gift out of love that mattered. I wondered at the time you told me why you were judging yourself so harshly for that,” I told her quite emphatically.”do you think the nurses cared about your motives. No, they only cared about your act of generosity -the cookies!” “Really?” she said quite hopefully. I continued, “And your Dad was a generous man, generous with you and generous with others. Do you really think his motives mattered?” She began to cry and she pulled a wrinkled photo of him out of her wallet to show me. “The love he showed you was God’s love for you,” I commented softly. She told me more stories about him.
She began again to speak of her father taking her to church. “I notice that you use masculine language for God. It makes sense to me because you were so close to your Dad. Some say we get our earliest image of God from our parents.” She thought about that. And came back to our next session having prayed on her own and visited Catholic Charities for some help in getting financial assistance and a lead on a part time job she could do at home. She called it a God-send. She was feeling much more optimistic about living fully the time she had left. And she did decide to take “a leap of faith” to believe mostly in an afterlife, about 90%. I thought that sounded just fine.
I learned from Rita that it does not have to take a long time to let go of a resentment and find new life, even at the end of life.