A Happy Death

When I went to convent school as a child, the nuns constantly reminded us to pray to St. Joseph, the patron saint of happy deaths. I didn’t need much encouragement. I thought about death constantly, and as a result, I spent much of my free time praying to St. Joseph.

As an adult, and a lapsed Catholic turned Buddhist, from time to time I wonder what happened to all of those prayers. Do happy death prayers go into some kind of a prayer bank, to be drawn upon at the time of passing? I hope so.

This morning, a friend told me a story of a happy death.

Her brother had lung cancer and was successfully treated for it. He remained cancer-free for three years, but when the disease returned, he gathered his family together and announced that he had made a decision to forgo treatment, to let nature take its course.

My friend said from that moment on her brother spent most of his time tidying. His possessions were dealt with, and each member of the family was given some little gift to remember him by. My friend’s gift was a picture of herself and her brother with a horse they had as a children.

At this point in the story, we were both in tears, but she continued. She said when her brother was seven years old, their father died suddenly. Her brother had never recovered, and in some way, this affected his whole life—a hard life, she said.

However, once he had made his decision, his personality changed. He told jokes constantly. His family rallied around him, and he was a joy to be with.

By the time it was necessary for him to be in palliative care, the family surrounded him. There were never less than nine or ten people in his room. My friend cooked meals for the whole family and brought them each night so they could be together. Her daughter, a healer, held a circle with her women friends. They stood around his hospital bed one evening, singing and blessing him.

He loved Elvis, and someone brought a CD player to the hospital and played Elvis gospel songs.

One morning, he woke up and there were only nine family members there, and he asked “Where is everybody?" and laughed. The nurses loved him because he was such a sweet patient.

On the day he died, his breathing was laboured, and he slipped in and out of consciousness. He woke once and seemed totally present. He smiled, and tears ran down each side of his face. He looked at the space where no one seemed to be and said, “Hi, Dad,” and, as “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” played on the CD player, his soul left his body.

My friend said, “My brother never seemed to know how to live. But he certainly taught us how to die.”