Jahi McMath was a 12-year-old girl from Oakland, California, who died unexpectedly after routine surgery. Her parents could not accept the fact of her death. They kept her on a ventilator and clung to the hope of recovery even though she had been declared “brain dead” by doctors. In another case, a Texas woman who was brain dead was kept on a ventilator in the hope that she could give birth to the child she was carrying.
These are different cases, but both of them raise the problem of death. When are we dead? Can we face the reality of death? Are we prepared for our own death or for the death of someone we love? It also raises questions about the way we talk about death. “Brain death”, “coma” and “persistent vegetative state” (PVS) are all clinically distinct diagnoses, yet they are often used interchangeably. Sloppy use of terminology by the media leads people to think that brain death isn’t really death at all, but some kind of coma from which a patient might awake. But the fact is that brain death is death. It differs from other death only in the way we diagnose it.
At the heart of this debate is the reality of encounter. In this life, we know and love God largely through our human encounters. We consider friendship and love, for example, to be “sacraments” of God’s own love. The most fulfilling human love is actually an experience of the love of God made incarnate in human relationship.
When we die, the physical and social impediments to our knowledge of God are removed, and we see God “face to face,” as St. Paul says. This is Encounter in the fullest sense of the word. The God who made us but remained so “other” is now immediately present. This Encounter is the goal and purpose of our lives, what everything is finally all about. We might try to find satisfaction or happiness in other things, but in the end, it is only this encounter with God that will satisfy us fully.
During Holy Week, we are called closer and closer to death, until Good Friday, when we may not look away. It is the one day of the year when we must embrace death as part of the paschal mystery. We must say, “I too will die.”
In the past, before we even knew about brain death or PVS, Catholics had a “Prayer for a Happy Death.” This prayer acknowledged the inevitability of death and asked God for a peaceful passing, one marked by hope and gratitude rather than fear. Perhaps during this Holy Week we can take time to pray about how we want to die. Perhaps we can meditate on death not merely as something that we can outsmart by technology but as a doorway to the ultimate Encounter, our union with the God who made us.