"I thought that if my life ends now, have I been a good person, have I done enough in my life?" Conversations about death. Reflection by Revd Dr Fiona Haworth

"I thought that if my life ends now, have I been a good person, have I done enough in my life?"  This is the devastating question asked by Michael Prendergast, a fit and sporty 28 year old, begging young people to take Covid-19 seriously after he contracted the Corona virus.[1]  In a clip posted on Twitter, and speaking from isolation in Kerry Hospital, Michael talks about his experience of extreme weakness as an ordeal that caused his to wrestle with the existential questions, ‘Have I been a good person?’  ‘Have I done enough in my life?’

I came across the article about Michael the same day that the BBC in its main news broadcast featured a film on conversations about death.  The person sharing their story was a woman in her 70s with terminal cancer who has been asked to think about the care she would like when she dies, and particularly, what might happen if she contracts Covid-19.  She said that she would like someone to hold her hand, a feeling that many of us would share.  The contagious nature of Covid-19 and the requirement to isolate patients has meant significant changes in care of the dying.  Hospitals are now making every effort to allow one family member to be present, kitted in full protective clothing, but this is not always possible and so, tragically, some are dying without the presence of family or friends. 

Having spent time with many bereaved families over the years, I have been struck by how often families, responding to a sudden and unexpected death have said that it is what their loved one would have wanted.  Usually, of course, these words have been said of older people who have led long, full and rich lives.  This approach marks a significant change in our approach to death.  The Book of Common Prayer includes petitions against dying suddenly and unprepared.

The prospect of dying suddenly and unprepared is what Michael wrestled with as he lay in isolation in hospital, too weak to lift his head.  "I thought that if my life ends now, have I been a good person, have I done enough in my life?"  It is heart wrenching to hear these words uttered by one so young.  Yet it is a question that many might find themselves asking in this time of crisis.  So, what does our faith have to say to people like Michael and all of those facing the prospect of an untimely death? 

My own reading of scripture, and of the Christian tradition, leads me to the conviction that questions about whether we have done enough or been good enough are not the questions that God asks of us.  That we might ask those questions is all too understandable.  We live in a society that values achievement, that rewards effort and ability, although it is interesting to see how conversations about where value might lie evolve in response to this crisis and the recognition of what constitutes essential work.  Faith tells a very different story, and the narrative I keep coming back to is one that the church has called ‘The Penitent Thief.’  It is told in Luke 23:39-43. 

Crucified alongside Jesus are two thieves.  One derides Jesus, shouting and railing at him to save them all.  The other thief rebukes him, saying that they have both got what they deserve, whereas Jesus has done nothing wrong.  He then asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.  Jesus responds by saying, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’  It is an extraordinary promise, all the more so because the thief, whilst acknowledging he has done wrong, makes no expression of contrition and does not ask forgiveness.  If the thief had asked himself those questions, ‘Have I done enough, have I been good enough?’ the only answer he could offer was no.  Yet Jesus receives him into Paradise. 

The testimonies of those nearing the end of their lives often contain expressions of regrets, and these very seldom focus on achievements or contributions to the world, almost unfailingly people close to death wish that they had been kinder, more caring, happier; that they had spent more time with family and friends, had enjoyed life more.  This chimes with a Jewish tradition that says the one question God will ask when people die is, ‘Have you enjoyed my creation?’

I have no knowledge of how Michael and the very many people who are struggling with questions of life and death have lived, are living.  The numbers of those who have died in this country alone are too great for us to hold all their stories together.  Among them will be people who have died mourned by children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, and those whose lives have barely begun.  Some will have led seemingly ordinary lives; some will have lost their lives in the service of others.  Their worth lies not in what they have achieved, but in our shared humanity.  They are like us, with the same dreams, the same hopes, the same fears.  And like us, they are held in God’s infinite and compassionate regard. 

The story of the thief is an extreme example, but one that should give us all hope.  It is not so much how we live that matters, but how we approach death.  Are we open, honest, ready to face our failings, our fears, ready to be recipients of extraordinary, unmerited grace?

Time and again, the scriptures tell us that those called by God are not those who led exemplary lives of goodness and achievement, rather they are people aware of their own limitations, fearful and uncertain.  In the end their yes to God was what mattered.  It is never too late to say yes to God.  What matters is not what we have been or who we are, but what God has been, who God is, and who God will be, eternally.

Much of our church tradition is shaped by human achievement; the art, music and architecture designed to give glory to God.  We have come to associate human achievement with goodness, with virtue.  There are deep and rich spiritual traditions that have come from other places, springing up from the poorest and most vulnerable, from the oppressed and victimised, from the enslaved and the marginalised, who know absolutely that the grace of God and the love of God extend to those written off and excluded by those with power and influence.  We are preoccupied with questions of goodness, merit and worth because these are what our society values.  God does not.

God calls all of us children, known and loved.  God yearns for us all to come home to God’s love.  God values us because God has called us into being.  We are, in and of ourselves, good enough for God because we are all God’s choice.  Thanks be to God.

[1] The article in which Michael’s story is told, which contains a link to his Twitter post, can be found here: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-patient-28-ireland-asks-life-ends-now-good-person-a4395306.html