In Exile – A column by Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “Giving One’s Death Away”

Giving One’s Death Away

By Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI 

According to the renowned mystic John of the Cross, we have three essential struggles in life: to get our lives together, to give our lives away, and to give our deaths away.

What is asked of us in the first two struggles is more obvious. But what does it mean to give our deaths away?

In essence, it means this: How we die leaves behind a legacy, a particular spirit, which either nurtures or haunts those left behind. If we die in bitterness and anger, not at peace with our loved ones, ourselves, and our God, we will leave behind a spirit which is more toxic than nurturing. Conversely, if we die reconciled and at peace with our loved ones, the world, and with God, then like Jesus, we will leave behind a spirit which nourishes, warms, consoles, and gives our loved ones sacred permission to be at peace.

How we die colors our legacy, and that legacy is either a gift or a burden to those we leave behind.

On Nov. 23, 2023, Richard (Rick) Gaillardetz, a renowned theologian, died of pancreatic cancer while still in the prime of his life. He was a loving husband, father, grandfather, gifted lecturer, friend and mentor to many, a sports enthusiast, with a robust sense of humour. He also had a solid Christian faith that would be put to the test during the months of his terminal illness.

When he was diagnosed with cancer more than a year before he died, his doctors told him it was terminal, there was to be no cure; he needed to face the brutal fact he was going to die within the next two years. He did face that. Moreover, in doing so, he tried (not without some agonizing struggles) to make his death a conscious gift to his family and to the world.

During the months leading up to his death, he kept a blog which shared what it is like to know you are dying and to accept that in love and faith, even within the agony of having to let go of life and wrestle with the powerful instinctual resistances within us.

Those blogs have been brought together in a book, While I Breathe I Hope – A Mystagogy of Dying, edited by Grace Agolia.  

Here are some of Rick’s feelings and thoughts:

  • Unlike many saints in our tradition, I did not choose this diminishment; it has been thrust, unbidden and unwanted upon me. But I do see in it an invitation to a graced vulnerability, a call to abandon a misplaced confidence in my own vigour and bodily autonomy.
  • I am praying for both the grace for diminishment and the grace of diminshment.
  • One of the demons I confront daily is an overweening ego that endlessly clamours for attention like a whining toddler, drowning out the needs and concerns of others. One of the unexpected graces of diminishment appears as I am drawn kicking and screaming out of my natural egotism to discover within a much-neglected reservoir of compassion for the suffering of others.
  • I must confess to an occasional preoccupation with the final dying process. What will it be like? How will I handle it when my bodily organs begin to break down and the real dying begins? Will the peace I now feel sustain me through that quite ‘different’ time? … What I hold most firmly in my heart through all this is the conviction that God has so profoundly encompassed me in love over these past several months since my diagnosis that, surely, God will not abandon me in those final days and hours.
  • I now belong to the ragged band of the elderly and infirm. These are now my people, my last tribe.
  • Giving my death away is not just a matter of accepting my inevitable physical demise; giving my death away bids me to embrace experiences of passive waiting, diminishment, and marginality as a liberation from the slavery of personal achievement and self-importance. If I give these experiences due space, they beckon me beyond my egoistical self and enlarge my soul. They draw me to a greater compassion for the pain and suffering of others and encourage me to pray for others in the midst of their own suffering and impending death. Herein lies the gentle pedagogy of dying and rising.
  • “My final task is to return to God the life graciously given to me.”

In his farewell speech to his disciples, Jesus promised that after he had been taken from us, he would leave behind his spirit, the spirit of peace. When we go away we all leave behind us an unspoken spirit which affects those we have left behind.

If we die at peace with God, others, and ourselves, then like Jesus, our loved ones, while grieving our loss, will in the deeper part of themselves, feel nourished, warmed, and consoled by their every memory of us.

Rest in peace Rick Gaillardetz — you have left us (family, friends, the world) the gift of peace.

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Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher, and award-winning author. 

He can be contacted through his website  www.ronrolheiser.com.
Now on Facebook 
www.facebook.com/ronrolheiser

Find Fr. Rolheiser’s past columns online, along with an explanation for the column’s title “In Exile”: RonRolheiser.com/ARCHIVE