In the Roman Catholic culture within which I grew up, we were taught to pray for a happy death. For many Catholics at the time, this was a standard petition within their daily prayer: “I pray for a happy death.”
But how can one die happy? Isn’t the death process itself excruciating? What about the pain involved in dying, in letting go of this life, in saying our last goodbyes? Can one really die happy?
But the vision here, of course, was religious. A happy death meant that one died in good moral and religious circumstances. That meant that you didn’t die in some morally compromised situation, you didn’t die alienated from your church, you didn’t die bitter or angry at your family and, not least, you didn’t die from suicide, drug or alcohol overdose, or engaged in some criminal activity.
The catechetical picture of a happy death most often was an anecdotal story of some person who grows up in a good Christian family, is an honest, faith-filled, chaste, church-going person, but, for a period of time, drifts from God, from church-going and from observance of the commandments so that, at a point, he no longer thinks much about God, no longer goes to church and no longer takes Christian morality seriously.
But, shortly before his death, some chance circumstance becomes for him a moment of grace and he repents of his laxity, his immorality and his negligence of church practice, returns to church, makes a sincere confession, goes to Communion and, shortly after, is struck down by a heart attack or an accident. But grace has done its work: After years of moral and religious drifting, he has returned to the fold and dies a happy death.
Indeed, we all know stories that fit that description, but, sadly, we also all know stories where this is not the case, where the opposite happens — where good people die in very unfortunate, sad and tragic situations. We have all lost loved ones to suicide, alcoholism and other ways of dying that are far from ideal. We also all know of people, good people, who have died in morally compromised situations or who died in bitterness, not able to let their hearts soften in forgiveness. Did they die unhappy deaths?
Admittedly they died in an unfortunate way, but a happy or unhappy death is not judged by whether death catches us on an up-bounce or a down-bounce. For every person who fits the picture of a happy death, as described above, where death catches us on an up-bounce, there are others whose lives were marked by honesty, goodness and love, but who then had the misfortune of being struck down in moment of anger, in a moment of weakness, in a moment of depression, or who ended up dying from an addiction or suicide. Death caught them on a down-bounce. Did they die an unhappy death? Who is to judge?
What is a happy death? I like Ruth Burrows’ description: Burrows, a Carmelite nun, shares the story of a fellow nun with whom she once lived. This sister, Burrows tells us, was a good-hearted, but weak woman. She had entered a contemplative convent to pray, but she could never quite muster the discipline for the task. And so she lived for years in that state: good-hearted, but mediocre. Later in life, she was diagnosed with a terminal disease that frightened her enough that she began to make new efforts at becoming what she was supposed to be her whole life, a woman of prayer.
But a half-century of bad habits is not so easily changed. Despite new resolutions, the woman never succeeded in turning her life around. She died in her weakness. But, Burrows asserts, she died a happy death. She died the death of a weak person, asking God to forgive her for a lifetime of weakness.
To die a happy death is to die in honesty, irrespective of whether the particular circumstances of our death look good religiously or not. Dying in right circumstances is, of course, a wonderful consolation to our families and loved ones, just as dying in sad circumstances can be heartbreaking for them. But dying in circumstances that don’t look good, humanly or religiously, doesn’t necessarily equate with an unhappy death. We die a happy death when we die in honesty, irrespective of circumstance or weakness.
And this truth offers another challenge: The circumstances of someone’s death, when those circumstances are sad or tragic, should not become a prism through which we then see that person’s whole life. What this means is that if someone dies in a morally compromised situation, in a moment or season of weakness, away from his or her church, in bitterness, by suicide or by an addiction, the goodness of that life and heart should not be judged by the circumstances of that death. Death caught that person on a down-bounce, which can make for a more guarded obituary, but not for a true judgment as to the goodness of his or her heart.
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology.
His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.