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Helping People Die with “The Heart in the Hands”

The existence of a rational being like us includes knowing that life has a limit. We are finite beings which the existence ends, that is, we die. This consciousness still impacts most members of our species.  It is hard to accept people whom we love will die; we will die too. There are people who look at death as the end of a biological process that any living organism experiences. This is truth. Therefore, death should not be a big deal; it is only the end of a process of a living being that will lead to another process in the nature, such as decomposition. I remember the words of Antoine Lavoisier: “In nature nothing is created, nothing is lost, everything changes.” As part of this nature, we are in the same process of biochemical changes. However, this process of changes is not viewed as simple as it looks when we are confronted by the death of people we love or our own death.

We just celebrated Easter, the feast of the victory of life over death. Christians profess faith in the hope of resurrection: death is not the last word, but the eternal life in the merciful love of God. Easter is the faith in the Paschal Mystery of suffering, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Looking at his cross, rays of hope shine with the love that defeated death. In light of the Paschal Mystery, death is only the passage from a historical existence to eschatological salvation. Particularly for Christians, the end of a historical existence should not be the worst thing, but only part of a process that unifies the immanent with the transcendent toward an existence in God’s life.  But, the drama of death is still present in the feelings of the faithful.

Death is not an easy reality for any human being. Of course, that some individuals deal with death better than others. Serving terminal patients and being with them and their families in the last minutes of life in many occasions, I witnessed that death is a powerful moment of life, a mix of suffering and hope, of pain and love. Considering the paradoxical reality of life and death, I shift from death itself to the process of dying, the one that we – as rational beings who have created extraordinary developments to improve our lives and prolong our existence – can interfere to make death less painful. Simply saying: the problem is not death itself, but lives ending with no dignity.

Saint Camillus de Lellis (1550-1614), founder of the Order of the Ministers of the Sick, known as Camillians, began his work for the destitute sick in the Hospital Saint James of the Incurables in Rome. At a time which care for the sick was not noble and very often a form of punishment, Camillus de Lellis gathered a group of people who wanted to care for the sick with compassion and tenderness. “More heart in your hands” was one of Camillus’ favorite sentence to exhort his companions in the way they provide care.

In the Sixteenth Century, medicine was not as developed as today. Sick people did not have good prognostics and, in most situations, illnesses were practically a death sentence. Europe also faced many plagues, epidemics of infectious diseases that killed many people. During these plagues, the main measures were to put infected people in quarantine to let them die, isolated in order to stop the spread of a plague. Saint Camillus and his group thought these unfortunate people deserved more than dying alone. They were fellow humans who deserved care to die well. Thus, many Camillians risked their lives to care for the victims of plagues with the hearts in their hands. Several Camillians also died serving the sick; later they were recognized as martyrs of charity by the Catholic Church. But, most interesting during these times of plagues was that the Camillians became known as priests of the good death.

The pandemic of coronavirus and COVID-19 posts a challenge about human life and death. Today, measures to quarantine infected people to let them die isolated in order to stop the spread of the virus are unthinkable. One of the most encouraged measures is social distancing of healthy people by quarantining them at their home. In addition, we identify those who are infected and those sick with COVID-19 to provide health care. Many people with the same diseases needing the same treatment at the same time create a giant drama to any healthcare system in the world; even the richest countries face scarcity of healthcare resources and many ethical questions are raised in order to better respond to this pandemic and the impact on the healthcare system. Dramatic decisions must be made. The goal is stopping the spread of the virus and care for the sick with the help of modern medicine. However, many people are still dying, more than in any normal situation.

On the one hand, we have the challenge to stop the spread of the coronavirus, care for the infected and those sick with COVID-19. On the other hand, we have to accept that people are dying because of COVID-19. But we can never accept to let them die like objects dropped in a hospital bed or in the floor of an emergency care unit corridor. The value that human life does not allow us to do that, even in the midst of an exceptional context of urgency and scarcity. Death is the end of a biological process, but the dignity given to the human life – an intrinsic value given by God even before an individual existence as affirmed by the Christian tradition, or an inherent value recognized in the Human Rights Declaration – does not permit us let this process reach its end with no care for a good death.

As conscious as we are about the end of our existence, we have a difficult time to accept death. Even believing in the hope of resurrection, we still suffer in front of the passage from historical to eschatological life. Regardless of how dramatic the situation is and how big the suffering is, care is a moral virtue to help people die with dignity.

Caring for a person whether healthy or sick is an art of attention, sensitivity, and compassion. There are those who affirm that care is an essential part of human existence. Others are even more radical and say that the essence of the human being is care. People like to be cared for, and it seems that a tendency exists in which most people also like to care for others. If this is true that care is part of human existence as much as death; care must be at the end of the life to realize the human dignity during the final passage from life to death.

Care is an art which rules and protocols are not enough to guide it. Care is an art exercised with the heart in the hands. In the most challenging moments, an art of the heart in the hands finds creative ways to provide care and help people to die with dignity. It is an art of the heart in the hands that also finds ways to comfort families suffering for not saying goodbye to their love ones buried in a mass grave with no funeral.

The existence has an end. A meaningful existence seems to be the one that experienced care throughout a life of joy and pain, happiness and suffering. Care is a virtue that provides meaning to joy and hope that overcome suffering. As a virtue throughout life, care shows the human beauty of creativity in finding ways to help people die, caring for them with the heart in the hands.