My mother is the unwilling president of the CCW at her hometown parish. Recently, she had to attend a dinner for a visiting priest. She was not impressed. Her own mother, my grandmother, was in the last weeks of her life. My mom could only take comfort in knowing that Grandma was not suffering, thanks to anti-anxiety medications and pain killers, and that when her hour came, she would go peacefully.
So Mom’s hackles went up when the visiting priest proclaimed that we “shouldn’t” give pain medications to the sick or the dying because “suffering is good for the soul.”
It is this kind of heartless, fundamental misunderstanding of the Lord they claim to follow that ultimately pushed my husband and me away from Catholic services and the priests that lead them. In this case, I think the priest has followed a confusing line of thought that goes something like this:
God is good, but people still suffer. We can find meaning in suffering by remembering that our Lord suffered as well. If remembering the Lord is good, then suffering is good. Therefore, we do good to others when we allow them to suffer.
Suffering is inevitable, and often making meaning out of it is the best we can do. But when it comes to the suffering of others, we would do well to set the Catechism aside and pick up the Bible instead. We would do well to remember that Jesus admonished us to visit the sick and imprisoned, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, to share with the needy. This sounds like a recipe to relieve suffering. If our kind deeds to the least among us are the same as doing a kindness to Jesus, then the opposite is also true — the infliction of pain on our brothers and sisters is also pain meted out upon Jesus.
If we follow Jesus, we must strive to relieve suffering. If we instead decide that it is acceptable to inflict suffering because suffering can be meaningful and even transformational, we are not aligning ourselves with Jesus. We are aligning ourselves with those who crucified him.
Despite all of our medical advances, there is still a profound helplessness that comes upon us when someone we love is dying. Jesus’ friends felt it when they saw him upon the cross. My mother and her siblings felt it today as they saw their mother take her last breath. Sometimes the best we can do is emulate Veronica and give the slightest gesture of comfort. Sometimes this is offering a cloth to wipe away blood and sweat; sometimes it is a drink of water; sometimes, it is a drip of morphine.
I, too, feel relieved that my grandmother’s last moments were not painful ones. I can only hope that when my time comes, someone loves me enough to give me the same gift.