Dying, of course, is a universal phenomenon. Witnessing a loved one’s decline, especially when it’s slow, is often filled with anguish. It’s so hard to let go, and it’s so hard to be a bystander to suffering. But, for some, the process of dying is also filled with opportunity—opportunity to say goodbye, opportunity to appreciate life’s sweetest, even if fading moments, opportunity to embrace life to the fullest. This week we hear a compilation of end-of-life reflections by John Martin, who died on July 11, 2019. They are read by his wife of 34 years, Sheila Brennan Martin. 

A lifelong educator, John Martin served as headmaster of St. Andrew’s School in Barrington, RI, from which he retired in 2015.

I would have taken all of life’s small and beautiful things for granted without my cancer diagnosis. Now, spending my final chapter at HopeHealth Hulitar Hospice Center, I have time to come to terms with it as I create space for thoughts not considered and emotions not felt.

My heart is so full of gratitude that I cannot contain it. I cry when I receive messages from friends, at Gregorian chants, or when I look at my wife Sheila. At first, I thought it was a weakness and I wasn’t being strong. Now I realize it’s not a matter of strength or weakness, but an opportunity to understand grace. I cry not because I’m disappointed or sad, but out of a sincere and grateful heart.

As with every life milestone, death opens up opportunities to see life more clearly. When we embrace it, we can experience depths of love and gratitude that we could have never imagined. I am able to cherish my time with Sheila as my wife, not my caretaker. My hospice team cares for me completely. I believe it’s really important to have dignity when you die.

Dying is not easy. it is a difficult journey. The back and forth between life and death is tough and the tension is very real. I know I want to go out teaching. I hope my insights will be a comfort to others who are in the waiting game of dying, and to their loved ones.

Dying does not come with operating instructions, so we do our best. The results are hopefully positive, but surely uneven and not predictable. It’s a bit like those late Christmas Eves when I assembled toys with instructions and the toy looked okay, but there were still parts left over. The next day I’d discover those parts were actually important. I wonder what pieces I have left on the floor that were too important to ignore. I guess this is something I will never know for sure. So, I have come to terms with the fact that how I live, and how I respond to dying, is the best I can do.

Please don’t dishonor a dying person’s suffering with platitudes. Just be with us, stand by us, help us be honest and pray with us for the peace we will need.

Embrace life. Embrace death. Death is only a part of your journey.