The “gift” of Death

The “gift” of death

Henri Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift. A Meditation of Dying and Caring

1994, Harper SanFrancisco

Henri Nouwen, well-known author and spiritual director, wrote a little book drawing from his own experiences which outlines what he thinks are three important tasks we need to undertake as we prepare to die, or as we prepare to help our loved ones die.   I provide here a summary of his thought, long with some questions for reflection. The numbers in brackets refer to page in his book.   Dying as an intentional spiritual practice   Nouwen begins his books with a series of probing questions about our approach to our dying.   As we deal with the terminal reality of our death, we know there is no cure. We only know that things will get harder as we get older. What are we ultimately growing towards? Are we simply becoming less capable people, returning our bodies to the dust from which they came, or are we growing into living reminders of amazing grace? (56)   Is death something so horrible and absurd that we are better off not thinking or talking about it? Is death such an undesirable part of our existence that we are better off acting as if it were not real? Is death such an absolute end of all our thoughts and actions that we simply cannot face it? Or is it possible to befriend our dying gradually and live open to it, trusting that we have nothing to fear? Is it possible to prepare for our death with the same attentiveness that our parents had in preparing for our birth? Can we wait for our death as for a friend who wants to welcome us home? (xii-xiii)   Dying is the most general human event, something we all have to do. But do we do it well? Is our death more than an avoidable fate that we simply wish would not be? Can it somehow become an act of fulfilment, perhaps more human than any other human act? (xiv)   Are we preparing ourselves for our death, or are we ignoring death by keeping busy? Are we helping each other to die, or do we simply assume we are going o always be here for each other? Will our death give new life, new hope, and new faith to our friends, or will it be no more than another cause for sadness? The main question is not, How much will we still be able to do during the few years we have left to live? but rather, How can we prepare ourselves for our death in such a way that our dying will be a new way for us to send our and God’s spirit to those whom we have loved and who have loved us? (xvi-xvii)   Everything in us seems to resist these questions and the implication that there is another, more intentional way to approach our death and our dying. (4) This is the lonely task of “befriending our death. (4) We can turn our dying into intentional spiritual practice.

  • Questions for reflection
    • Do any of these questions strike you as reasonable? If so, have you been able to reflect on them in such a way that you can begin to find answers for yourself?
    • As you look at how you are leading your life right now, if you are honest with yourself, to what extent are you keeping yourself busy precisely in order to not address these questions or face your eventual death?
    • What happens when you allow yourself to consider that your eventual dying might in fact be a gift to those around you?


* * * * *

  Three spiritual practices associated with our dying:   Nouwen identifies three basic spiritual practices associated with an intentional approach to our dying and death: 1) Seeing ourselves as children: children of God, expressions of God; 2) Seeing ourselves as brothers and sisters of all humanity, and thus in solidarity with all those who are dying; and 3) Seeing ourselves as parents of the next generation, passing on to it our fruitfulness.   To befriend death, we must claim that we are children of God, sisters and brothers of all people, and parents of generations yet to come. In so doing, we liberate our death from its absurdity and make it the gateway to a new life. (47)

  • Seeing ourselves as children:

The first task of intentional dying is to reclaim our childhood. Entering second childhood is essential to a good death. What characterizes this second childhood has to do with a new dependence. As we become more and more debilitated by age and illness, we rediscover what it means to be dependent. (14-15)   This dependence, like the dependence of first childhood, requires considerable trust: the child trusts that his/her needs will be met by caregivers. If trust is there, the experience is one of immense sense of safety: there is someone who loves me enough to look after me. (15)   In the Christian context, this translates into a trust that God loves me enough that God will not abandon me, that God will look after me, whatever that means. When we know that God holds us safely – whatever happens – we don’t have to fear anything or anyone but can walk through life with great confidence. When we claim our most intimate dependence on God not as a curse but as a gift, then we can discover the freedom of the children of God. (16)   The heart of the task of this practice, then, is to remind ourselves that we are beloved, that we are held, that we are expressions of the divine, that nothing separates us from God’s intimate love, no matter what happens. (17) Once we have come to the deep inner knowledge – a knowledge more of the heart than of the mind – that we are born out of love and will die into love, that every part of our being is deeply rooted in love and that this love is our true Father and Mother, then all forms of evil, illness, and death lose their final power over us and become painful but hopeful reminders of our true divine childhood. (17)

  • Questions for reflection:
    • How might you transform your growing dependence (“passivities of diminishment”) into opportunities to experience the gift of dependence?
    • Everything revolves around how much we truly believe and trust that God is there and will not abandon us, even in the midst of pain and desolation. In what ways might you develop a spiritual practice that can help you build that sense of trust?


* * * * *


  • Seeing ourselves as brothers and sisters:

There is immense joy in seeing ourselves as an integral part of the human race. (24) This joy can allow us to die well. However different we are, we are all born powerless and we all die powerless, and the little differences we live in between dwindle in light of this enormous truth. (26)   Seeing ourselves as brothers and sisters with all of humanity means that we are not alone; and our human solidarity shines best in our weakness, not necessarily in our strength. (27)   This profound sense of belonging to each other takes the sting out of dying and points us to a far broader picture. (28) (One person on this planet dies every second… – 105 die each minute)   In a sense, we all die poor. No amount of money, power, or influence can keep us from dying There is a blessing hidden in the poverty of dying. (31)

  • Questions for reflection:
    • One of the most powerful insights is that there is at least one person every second who reintegrates with God at death… In a “meditation with fantasy” (LINK) imagine the “busyness” of God just receiving a new person every second… Imagine all the human beings (we are told that since the beginning of homo sapiens there have been 109 billion of us…) already integrated in God… What feelings does such an image raise in you?
    • In what ways might it be helpful to you to consider your solidarity with those who are suffering and dying all around us?


* * * * *


  • Seeing ourselves as parents:

We can make a gift of our own dying to others; we can teach others through our own preparation for our death. (35) We become, in a way, “parent” to many through what we teach as we die. In a way, we die for others so that others can continue to live, strengthened by the Spirit of our love. (37)   The focus here is not on “accomplishments,” as was the case in our prime of life, but on our “fruitfulness.” Our death may be the end of our success, our productivity, our fame, or our importance among people, but it is not the end of our fruitfulness. The fruitfulness of our lives shows itself in its fullness only after we have died. (38) Our lives can yield fruit far beyond the limits of our short and localized existence. (39) Just as the full meaning of Jesus’ life was only revealed after his death. (40) It is also true of many great women and men in history: the meaning of their lives becomes clear long after they died.   The real question before our death, then, is not, How much can I still accomplish, or How much influence can I still exert? but How can I live so that I can continue to be fruitful when I am no longer here among my family and friends? (41)   As Paul reminds us, we trust that God’s Spirit will manifest itself in our weakness and move where it wants and bear fruit from our deteriorating body and mind. (42)

  • Questions for reflection:
    • In what ways might you be able to distinguish your “accomplishments” from your “fruitfulness”?
    • This issue resembles what Eric Ericson called “generativity” – i.e., what we offer the next generations as we take our leave. In what ways do you see yourself offering something to those whom you will leave behind?


* * * * *

  Three spiritual practices associated with caring for the dying:   As we learn, over time, to live the truth that death does not have a sting, we find within ourselves the gift to guide others to discover the same truth. (51) To the degree we befriend our own death, we can become truly caring people. (52)

  1. Helping the dying see that are the child of God

Care is the loving attention given to another person because that person is a child of God. (58) To care for others as they become weaker and closer to death is to allow them to fulfill their deepest vocation, that of becoming ever-more fully what they already are: daughters and sons of God. (58)   Through our caring presence, we keep announcing that sacred truth: dying is a great struggle to hang on to whatever we have left, and the surrender needed is not the natural human response. That surrender may be a little easier if the dying can truly see him/herself as an expression of God, a Child of God, and develop the trust required to let go. (59)   Our greatest suffering comes from losing touch with our belovedness and thinking of ourselves as a useless unwanted presence and a burden. (60) And we all share the fear of dying alone and being swallowed up by darkness. To care is to stand by a dying person and to be a living reminder that the person is indeed the beloved child of God. (61)   This is no easy task, because we are all touched by the immense struggle of faith to maintain trust in God’s promise that we are not abandoned. This is a struggle no person should take on alone. The anguish of our dying friend of relative soon becomes our own and we become victim of the same powers of doubt which the dying person is struggling with. We risk becoming overwhelmed by feelings of helpless, powerlessness, and self-doubt. (62)   The circle of love surrounding our dying friend has the power to expel the demons of self-rejection and abandonment, and bring some light in the midst of darkness. (63) Together we can create a place where our dying friend can feel safe and can gradually let go and make the passage, knowing she is loved. (63)

  • Questions for reflection:
    • In what ways might you be helpful to a friend/relative dying to help them develop trust in God?
    • In what ways might you create a “circle of love” around the dying person to help them let go?


* * * * *


  1. Helping the dying see they are brothers and sisters of all humanity

It is a real gift we can offer those who are dying to help them know deeply that we are all brothers and sisters in one human family and that, despite our differences, we are all called to surrender our lives into the hands of a loving God. This is one way to fight the loneliness of the thought of dying alone: we can help the dying feel connected with the many who have died and are dying and to experience some sense of comfort from that connectedness. (74)   We can also help the dying recall that the God we believe in is intimately connected with our world. God is incarnate in everything and everyone. In a sense, as we die, we recognize that God is some ways is dying with us. (78)   Another way to help the dying resist the temptation to experience themselves dying alone, to care also means to gently encourage the dying to die with and for others. We who care need to have the courage to bring together around our dying friends the saints and sinners of all times: the starving children, the tortured prisoners, the homeless, the wanderers, the AIDS-afflicted, and the millions who have died or are now dying. This is not cruel, but lifts those who are dying out of their isolation and makes them part of the most human of all human events. When those who are dying begin to realize that what they are experiencing, though painful, unites them with the worldwide and centuries-old family of humanity, they may be able to let go and gradually let that human family carry them through the gate of death. (79-80)   Caring, then, is different from protecting dying people from seeing the larger picture. To the contrary, it is helping these people to grow in their awareness that their individual, painful condition is embedded in the basic condition of human mortality and, as such, can be lived in communion with others. (80-1) Healing comes not from being infantilized but from being treated as a mature adult able to live pain together with others. (83)

  • Questions for reflection:
    • In what ways might you be helpful to a loved one who is dying if you helped them see their dying and death in solidarity with the dying and death of others around the world?
    • What does it do to your image of God to think about at least one human being per second re-integrating with God?
    • At 109 billion (the number of human beings estimated since the beginning of homo sapiens), the “Communion of Saints” is a rather large community… What impact does that fact have on our image of afterlife, and of God?


* * * * *


  1. Helping the dying see they are parents to the generations to come

Somehow, meanings must grow out of the passivities of waiting (91) In dying, we move from action to “passion,” from being in control to being dependent, from taking initiatives to having to wait. It is in this movement, strangely, that our true fruitfulness is hidden. (92)   Believing that our lives come to fulfilment in dependence requires a tremendous leap of faith. To care for the dying is to help them make that hard move from action to passion, from success to fruitfulness, from wondering how much they can still accomplish to making their very lives a gift for others. Caring for the dying means helping them discover that, in their increasing weakness, God’s strength becomes visible. (94)   Sometimes it is their very growing dependence that the dying can experience a new kind of giving to those around. How do we help the dying see that their death becomes fruitful in the lives of those who live after them? (98) To the extent that we have created around the dying a community of care, we can hope that those who live long after the person’s death will still receive the fruits of the seeds they have sown in their weakness. (99)

  • Questions for reflection:
    • In what ways might you help a loved one who is dying to see their life in terms of their “fruitfulness”?
    • In what ways could you help the loving community around the dying person begin to think of that person’s long-term impact?