To reanimate the one who breaths and to comfort the one who expires

Aggiornamento: 30 lug 2020

by Dr. Andrea Grillo, Professor of Sacramental Theology at the Pontifical Atheneum of Saint Anselm in Rome.

In “contagion” times, we have been kept “distant” and we feel “distant”. “Distance”, from others and even a bit from oneself, can be defined as “social” only if it is thought among the living. But what happens to those who feel that life is vanishing? And to those who have just abandoned life? And to those who could barely say goodbye to their loved one behind an ambulance window, and who will never see him/her again?

Of course, we must not exaggerate. We should not immediately raise our voice. There is no need to bring up Antigone. And there is no need either to speculate about plots, mystifications, mass insensitivity. No. A world that organises itself properly, with all the most sacrosanct rights, and with splendid abnegation, to grant even just a millimetre more of life expectancy to each of the sick persons under treatment, and that trusts in the fight for life, that hopes, that promises to reanimate those who are dramatically out of breath, the same world is still unable to consider, next to the extremely delicate quality of our life, the dignity and solemnity of company in the hour of death.

Here, objectively, we are all in difficulty. Our most accurate protocols, our structures, the shapes of the environments, even the priorities in the procedures, can consider, organise, establish, specify, detail everything, apart from dying. It is nobody’s fault: that's how death is. But not the consideration of death, the exclusion from the health action field of death as such, but rather as extreme and external border, that breaks the professional performance, that unplugs the machine, that raises the shield, that frees the spot for another decisive fight, this blind spot appears as a data, that irremediably discards and distracts, assumes, re-elaborates and places somewhere else: it loses the contact and removes.

This does not impede, of course, that the individual subjects, doctors or paramedics, can humanly and professionally honour the threshold, touch a hand, console a face, look longer in someone’s eyes, say a goodbye word or listen to an extreme will. But this is not the protocol. Making the dignity of death and of company in death fit in the protocol of the fight for life is a need that nobody despises, but that is almost perceived, and maybe even directly experienced, as a sort of contradiction in terms. How can I, at the same time, fight to ensure life until the last moment and consider death not only as the limit of defeat, but as the possibility and the occasion for a worthy and sincere goodbye? Nevertheless, in spite of this reasonable doubt, such project might constitute a vital care, a qualifying maturation, an almost unprecedented integration of processes and orders.

We have heard horrible stories: recovery rooms from which, during many hours, only deceased persons went out. If a hospital unit “produces only dead people”, it is unable to heal, it simply accompanies those who breath when dying, with all the efforts, with all the sleepless nights, with all the resources used and all the strategies put into practice; if one must almost surrender to the violence of a terrible and unpredictable virus, that violates the breath of so many lives without finding an obstacle, then that unit, brought to these conditions, transforms itself, willingly or not, from a hospital into a hospice.

Being able to find a balance point between a strong fight to give breath to the most damaged lung, and the lucidity when giving time, space and tact to the lung that can no longer breath: this very delicate and precious point, that can always be expected even without ever being foreseeable, without the need to use any demonisation, without railing against science that, if it is true science, never produces indifference, and without crying for nostalgia because it does no longer exist the religion of our great-grandparents, who died without being treated, we can find this balance point, we must find it, let us impose ourselves to do it.

It will not be easy. Because it has to do with integrating logics that, without much intention, but with great lucidity, have carved up the field. Good life and good death without being in contradiction frequently ignore themselves. Or, better, we try to make space, create bridges, to ensure funds, to arrange spaces, imagine procedures, strike a balance with exigences, because we can all assume this task to synthesise. To do everything as if all should live and be reanimated and to prepare together persons and times to be able to honour the farewell, to elaborate the first and extremely delicate grief, to suspend any action in grief, to say goodbye to the body and face, with style and tact. A style of dying and expiring can coexist with a style of reanimation, of aspiring and of flourishing.

We have seen everywhere, on every wall, behind many windows and on infinite screens, the sentence: “Everything will be all right”. The voice of a worried community can repeat ceaselessly a prayer of hope, which is not a spell. For the invasion of evil, it is necessary to have a voice, a tone, a role. Facing evil means to be able to name it as well, to look it in the eye to avoid turning our gaze away. Everything will be all right does not mean lacking the words and gestures for the evil of dying. It never has the last word. But as second to last word, it requests structural care and non-occasional culture to all.