Anyone facing serious illness, suffering, and death can find consolation and advice in Christ’s Passion, according Sister Nuala Kenny.
In her latest book, Rediscovering the Art of Dying, the doctor and ethicist uses the Stations of the Cross as a roadmap for navigating the stages of illness and grieving.
She writes, “I have seen the power of faith, trust in God’s love, and hope in the resurrection bring meaning and comfort to those who are ill, suffering, and dying.”
Sister Kenny meditates on the Passion by immersing herself in history and drawing out truths for those who are facing illness and death today. She uses the moment Jesus is mocked and beaten to reflect on the meaning of dignity, and talks of Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross as a jumping point to discuss palliative care.
It's a unique approach, and one sure to make Sister Kenny’s book stand out among the vast stores of how-to bereavement books out there, at least for Christians.
But the biggest strength in Sister Kenny’s latest work comes from her interest in often heart-wrenching, personal stories. With each chapter, she describes the true events in the lives of people diagnosed with illness or facing the end of their lives.
It’s that personal glance into their private lives that makes her reflections on “the art of dying” particularly compelling. With compassion, Sister Kenny tackles thorny issues such as advance care planning, acceptance and refusal of medical intervention, dignity, dependence, cognitive decline, and pain management.
A person’s life story provides meaning, context, and perspective to crisis.
She quotes Evangelii Gaudium and other Church documents, but the heart of each chapter is found outside official scripts. It lies in the raw, beautiful stories of a woman with cervical cancer finding comfort in a line of Scripture, or a family treating an ailing grandmother with dignity despite her dementia and inability to recognize them.
It’s no surprise this approach will be helpful for the sick or for grieving family members, who will find as they read that they are not alone in their fear or pain. However, Sister Kenny points out this focus on personal stories is a vital skill for medical professionals as well.
“Medical practice has become aware that there are important differences between the classic brief, rigid, and neat case history of a patient” and the “real, often messy and sad, and sometimes wonderful stories of the patient’s experience of the illness,” she writes.
“A person’s life story provides meaning, context, and perspective to crisis. Stories can help construct alternative final chapters, restore a sense of identity to the sick, and provide positive endings of hope and a legacy of consolation to the bereaved.”
Sister Kenny penned the book out of a “deep personal need for consolation, wisdom, and courage” after her own sort of personal crisis: the legalization of assisted suicide in Canada.
A doctor and ethicist, she could have elected to publish a tome on her moral objections to allowing physicians to end the lives of their patients. (Indeed, she was an outspoken opponent of the practice in public debates and continues to be). This book, however, is not a political or social commentary on the moral state of Canadian laws.
Instead, in Rediscovering the Art of Dying, Sister Kenny offers a reflection that touches the heart and soul, giving families a starting point to bond and heal over the suffering or death of their loved ones. Drawing on the death of her Saviour, she reflects on what it means to be made in the image of God.