Friday, April 06, 2012

The Silence of Death

When I was a hospital chaplain, I was present for the death of a patient. It was the first time that I experienced such a moment, and it was really by happenstance that I was there. I was making my way around the rooms in the Cardiac Care Unit, making it a point to visit the newest patients first in order to assess their spiritual needs, and this woman, elderly and frail, was among them.

When I entered the room, she had a niece and her husband visiting. She wasn't conscious in the least, hooked up to all sorts of machines and tubes. As I talked with her family, they expressed that they were basically here for the inevitable, having already made the decision to remove life support. There wasn't anything more that could be done, and they had made peace with letting her body give out on its own.

We watched in silence as the numbers on her machines gradually dropped, her life measured in beeps and jagged lines slipping away until the nurse walked in, looked at the screen, and said, "That's it." He turned the machines off, talked to the family, and left to start some paperwork. The family didn't stick around much longer. They thanked me for my visit, and went to begin making arrangements of their own.

The entire scene was quite understated on the surface. I can't imagine that too many people on the unit at the time were aware that this moment occurred. I'd offered a prayer at some point during this, but the only words that accompanied the death itself were "That's it." Not exactly the profound poetry one hopes for in times like that, just a simple final pronouncement. The family seemed calm, with little to no outward signs of grieving to be observed.

As for myself, I remember needing the rest of the day to process things. I'd replay this quick slippage into lifelessness, this silent moment broken only by the words "That's it." The family didn't have strong need of a chaplain, but I needed some time with my fellow interns later in the day.

Years ago, I read a book detailing how at the cellular level death is anything but silent. Your body fights tooth and nail until the very end to stay alive, redirecting resources as best it can until it just can't do anything more. We who stood around this woman with only the sounds of the machines couldn't see that happening. But even that body's inner workings, having done their best, eventually fell silent.

The current focus of my journey through the Ignatian Exercises is on the events of Jesus' final week. The invitation while reflecting on these passages is to enter into the story, to take part in it somehow, to feel what Jesus or the disciples felt, to see what they see or hear what they hear. When reflecting on the scene of the crucifixion itself, it was as if for the first time--and maybe in a sense, it really was the first time--that I was mortified at seeing this man beaten, mocked, and killed for sport. Sure, the powers that be had their own reasons: the containment of hope, as President Snow puts it in the Hunger Games movie. But for the crowds, it was a form of entertainment much like the French Revolution's guillotine centuries later and much like the title event in the aforementioned movie.

Jesus' death was not silent. It was not accompanied by a simple "That's it." It was public theatre for people pleased that it finally happened and for people with nothing better to do. Jesus himself is largely silent save for a few sentences and one definitive final cry while his organs and cells strive futilely to hang on until they can do no more. The civil and religious authorities have laid claim to the body's workings, and have declared victory over it.

The good news that billions of Christians will celebrate in another day or two is that this is a false victory. These bloodthirsty powers who kill dramatically and publicly, who keep the peace through force and intimidation don't get to have the final declaration in this matter. Instead, there will be a new noise, a powerful sound that will pierce through death's silence and declaring, "That's not it.

"That's not it at all."