As I lay dying

holdinghandsLast week religion reporter David Crumm was featured in our 5Q+1 series. He said that aging is the most important religion story the mainstream media just do not get. Gary Stern of The Journal News had a fantastic story that Crumm may want to check out. He followed a local hospice worker as she attended to the spiritual needs of the dying. Here's how it begins:

Anyone can have faith when their body is strong and their loved ones are full of life.

Mary Wasacz attends to the faith of those whose bodies are failing or whose loved ones are slipping away.

She holds the hands of the dying as they prepare to meet their maker. She prays with the survivors as their parents or siblings cross to the other side.

"This is the final journey," she says. "It is just as important as any stage of life. I don't have any answers, but I have my faith. I look around the world and know there must be a God. It's a leap of faith to try to help people through it."

Wasacz was motivated to become a spiritual care coordinator 30 years ago after her third child, Cathy Ann, was born with a fatal condition. She and her husband brought their little girl home from the hospital to die, the first such parents at that hospital to do so. After surviving that heartbreaking tragedy, they started a support group for parents who lost infants. She was already a psychiatric nurse and decided to make bereavement her specialty.

Stern spent two years on the story, accompanying Wasacz as she visited a few patients, some who are devout Christians and some who are irreligious. Wasacz herself is a devout Roman Catholic and a eucharistic minister. Stern describes a visit to the home of Mary Barrett. Wasacz had helped Barrett's father, Charles, but he had died several months earlier. Now she was taking care of Barrett's mother, Marjorie, who had suffered a stroke and has congestive heart failure.

"I went to Catholic school and the nuns would say 'Pray for the grace of a happy death,'" [Mary Barrett] said. "I used to wonder what they meant. Now I know."

Charles and Marjorie were married for 63 years and lived alone in Yonkers until two years before Charles' death at 91.

As Wasacz gave Communion to Marjorie, Mary Barrett talked about the importance of faith to her parents and to herself.

"For people who don't have faith, it must be very sad," she said. "My parents always had a strong faith. My father was very resigned to whatever was going to be and wasn't scared. My mother can't wait for Mary to come and pray with her. I don't get to church as much as I would like, but I say prayers. We believe in eternal life."

At 93, Marjorie Barrett continues to fight on and receive Communion.

hospiceThat was one of several mentions of sacraments -- a topic that most reporters only notice when politicians are involved. When my grandmother died from pancreatic cancer, our family chose palliative care to help relieve her pain as she died. I think Stern's story does a great job of showing how families use hospice programs and palliative care. Early in the story he introduces readers to Nannie Seward, a dying 96-year-old. At the end of the story, he revisits the patient:

Early this year, Wasacz got to do something unusual: visit a patient who had recovered to the point where she could leave the hospice rolls.

Nannie Seward, who was turning 98, was fighting off her thyroid cancer. She had gotten through some other health scares, too, and was now eating well and feeling strong.

"She eats almost everything in sight," said her daughter, Mary Wallace, a nurse. "She gets up in the morning and loves to have bacon and eggs."

Seward was happy as could be to hug and greet Wasacz, a friend full of hope and faith like her own.

"God is so much in your life," Wasacz said, holding Seward's hand.

"Oh yes," Seward said. "Couldn't do nothing without him. I feel sorry for people who don't know God."

Seward sat proud in a straightback chair, a Bible and bowl of candy bars on the coffee table in front of her.

"You were dying and you were ready to go," Wasacz said. "You were ready for the Lord."

"I'm not afraid of dying," Seward said. "Anytime he's ready for me, I got to go. I'm looking forward to a better place. I got to go."

There are numerous stories enterprising religion reporters could cover about end-of-life issues. I keep thinking we might see more coverage of a story about a California effort to help people commit suicide:

Physician-assisted suicide advocates -- unable to pass legislation and short on cash to push a statewide ballot initiative -- will announce today the creation of a consultation service to offer information to the terminally ill and even provide volunteers for those who would like someone to be present when committing suicide.

"Volunteers will neither provide nor administer the means for aid in dying," said The Rev. John Brooke, a United Church of Christ minister from Cotati and one of the organizers of the new End of Life Consultation Service. "We will not break or defy the law."

That story was in the San Jose Mercury News. Let us know if you see any other good, bad or ugly stories about how various church bodies treat stories about death and dying.

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