Whole Person Care – True Death with Dignity
In its 2015 report, “Dying in America,” the Institute of Medicine concluded that the spiritual, medical, and emotional needs for gravely ill people are largely unmet. For loved ones of patients in end-of-life care, the experience can be dizzying, with decisions of enormous import looming perpetually on the horizon.
Then, there is the possibility of physician-assisted suicide. Currently, nine states and the District of Columbia legally recognize the practice as “death with dignity,” a euphemism that usurps the language of true compassion and undermines the ethics of living out, as Pope St. John Paul II called it, the “Gospel of Life.”
Yet a response from the state of California is gaining momentum. Whole Person Care is an initiative sponsored by Catholic dioceses of California in collaboration with secular hospitals and other medical and religious institutions, offering comprehensive resources to patients and loved ones on how to prepare for the end-stages of life.
It’s not exactly an upbeat topic, but death is inescapable. In a divided world, death is actually one of the few things that unites all of humanity. The Whole Person Care Initiative suggests that to be prepared for the final journey of one’s life, an entirely new perspective on life and death is needed.
I witnessed the power of Whole Person Care in March 2020 through my father-in-law, who had recently entered hospice care. Six months after my father-in-law entered hospice, the palliative-care-program director at the hospital treating my father-in-law sat across from me at a television studio desk. Dr. Vincent Nguyen of Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, California was co-hosting a miniseries for EWTN Global Catholic Network, Whole Person Care: Living and Dying in the State of Grace. Dr. Hoag helped me better understand the components of palliative care and the challenges the Whole Person Care Initiative faces in an increasingly secular society.
Dr. Nguyen is hopeful. He knows that one can only ignore the richness of Christian theology on the dignity of the human person for so long. Often, when a parent or another loved one is on his or her deathbed, such encounters serve as profound spiritual opportunities, and sometimes precipitate wholesale conversions. Dr. Nguyen, a faculty fellow at UC Irvine, brings his students in to witness the Catholic sacrament of last rites and allows them to be struck by the image of the priest praying over a dying patient.
Dr. Nguyen, a member of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (known as the “Hospitallers” in medieval times), sees preparation as crucial for navigating the often-murky waters of terminal illness. He also calls for an openness to the graces offered by the dying process – a “happy death,” as he describes it. The phrase, borrowed from the Catholic tradition, describes a believer who dies in the state of grace, surrounded not only by loved ones but the Communion of Saints.
That is true death with dignity.
Whole Person Care: Living and Dying in the State of Grace debuts on EWTN television from June 14-18, 2021 at 5:30p.m. Eastern. The series will also be available for streaming at ondemand.ewtn.com.
James Day is the Operations Manager for EWTN west coast studio in Orange County, CA. He produced, wrote, and edited the Whole Person Care miniseries, and is the author of several books, most recently, Saint Michael the Archangel (2020, Our Sunday Visitor). He is currently researching cosmogony and cosmology.