Vietnam - LIVING ONE’S DEATH

This year several of us have been called, in different ways, to accompany three persons at the time of their "Final Journey": Mr S. and Miss V., who were parishioners, and Hiên’s elder sister during the last week of her life in hospital. Hiên tells us what helped her to experience this great suffering as a grace… Colette tells us of her encounter with Mr. S. during the last stages of his life.

Last December, on the 27th, I received the news of my sister’s incurable illness: blood cancer. Shocked and filled with sadness for myself but also for her family (she still had a little boy aged four), I left the following morning to be with her in the hospital. My tears flowed and I could not retain them: I could hardly recognise her, her body had changed so much! She talked so low that I had to strain my ears to hear her; in spite of this we were able to share a lot during that week. She showed me her hands and her face: a transfusion, the content of which is unknown, had caused these changes in her overnight. She added: "forgive him". She told me many things: her projects (e.g. she would come to my final vows; if she died she would ask the Lord that I would come with her!!), her wishes for her children, her commitments in the field of solidarity… We also prayed together. 
 
During the time I was with her the thought often occurred to me that I had a double role with her: that of her little blood sister (EM) who was caring for her big sister (Chi) and that of the Little Sister of the Assumption who was living her mission in this way. I was happy to be able to experience, to have a charism that enabled me to take this role of carer in my family. In my family I was able to live the Gospel with the colours of our charism. 
 
In the hospital there was a Buddhist NGO that served meal to the persons confined to bed and to those who accompanied them. I waited in the queue with all those people and I liked being there in their midst; in looking at their faces I recognised that of Jesus Christ in his suffering and his beauty, his tenderness and his gentleness. 
 
I was thinking of all the Little Sisters who have rendered service to the sick in this way; I was thinking of Colette and Diêp as they were with Mr S.; what they told us of his life and his sufferings; of their way of being with him, touched me and I was happy that the end of his life was eased by the care and attention of all those who surrounded him: his family, our young people, Colette and Diêp… I thank our founders and the whole Congregation who have transmitted to us this way of being close to persons in need and to the sick. 
 
After this experience with my sister in the hospital I think that I will no longer be afraid of caring for people who are ill. Thank you to the Congregation that enables me, in rendering services to persons who need them, to testify to the love of God that I feel is present in me and which has enabled me to live intensely with my sister until her death. 
 
My sister died on the 1st of January 2015 at 5 a.m., and had spoken to me again 10 minutes beforehand!
Thi Hiên 
 

 
When I went to visit this family for the first time, almost two years ago now, the father was already bedridden. Mr S.! It is a long story of sufferings mingled with happiness in a life that was not banal. From his origin: born in Vietnam of a French father from North Africa and a Chinese mother, until the end of his life … including, when he was already father of a family, a conversion similar to that of St Paul – all was strangely marked by novelty. It was in the final part of his life journey that I had the grace of taking some steps with him, steps that taught me a great deal, not only concerning the Christian Vietnamese customs in relation to death but also concerning life. 
 
This family, which the parish priest asked us to visit and help a little, was known to him because of its trials. Mr S. was a soldier. He had developed an illness because of the dioxin that had been widely poured out over the country during the war. He had had six children, three of them boys. One daughter died very young; his sons inherited the gene affected by that poison. One of them died at the age of twenty-six, another is in a wheelchair, the illness is beginning to develop; the third, for the moment, is in good health; he is strong and looks after his brother. 
 
Mr S. became a friend of the parish priest and a "pray-er" to support the latter in his mission in the service of the parish. Following the request that the parish priest had made of us and in agreement with the family, two young women from our hostel at Di An went once a week to do some housework and to give some nursing care to Mr. S. in the absence of his wife who was in the U.S.A. to care for her granddaughter while her daughter was completing her studies. 
 
Mr S’s condition worsened during last July; his body was covered with deep bedsores. The young women from our hostel who went to the family each week asked Diêp to go and treat his sores. Diêp then told me that I could go to visit him. So I went once or twice before leaving for the retreat with the temporary-professed sisters. On my return I was very taken up by other things until Mrs S. (who had returned because of her husband’s state of health) let me know that her husband wished me to go to see him. 
 
What happened during our encounters? I don’t know! But I know that since that moment I went every day, except about on two or three occasions, to visit him. I used to give him some chocolate to eat… sometimes I talked to him in French which he did not understand but I thought that, with it, I might take him back to his early childhood… 
 
With the sense of humour that he had retained during his sufferings he named me "Sister Sô-Cô-La" even when he could no longer eat chocolate or anything else! 
 
He was still open to others and used to ask me what I was doing "today"; he also invited a friend to come to see him but had forgotten his telephone number…. His wife said to him "why bother, what do you want to say to him?" to which he replied "mind your own business!" Did some thought transfer occur? The friend in question, accompanied by his wife, came to see him some day later…… 
Mr S. wanted to have a "nhau" with them (a kind of aperitif when people nibble at something and drink and chat); he wanted to have beer and some dried beef, as is the custom for "nhau"; but what he wanted at that moment was no longer in harmony with what he could really eat: he could not swallow either the beer or the beef … but, no matter, he had received his friends! 
 
A local woman came each morning to do his dressings; a woman from the parish and some neighbours came in the morning and the evening to say the prayers in preparation for death with him. Here, he or she who is going to die prepares for the great "passage". Every day his wife talked with him of the Life that was awaiting him, of the encounter with Mary and Jesus, of his children whom he was going to see again, of his sufferings united to those of "Duc Giêsu Kitô"… He welcomed all that serenely. His wife told us that never once had he rebelled or asked God about the "why" of his sufferings. And yet, he was not a submissive man: he could still tell his wife that she was talking too much when she was recounting her or their life, or he could make amused comments when he approved what she was saying!
 
One day I became certain of something as I was going to his house:" It is Christ who is suffering in him"! He used to refuse the injections that could have eased him because they would have shortened his life"! He said he has promised Mary that as long as he could bear it, he would… The mystery of a life… He did so right to the end, without any injection. That is not, for me, a model to follow, but rather "a rare deed", "unique" even, which one admires in silence, without under-standing what is taking place in the depths of the other person but which one respects as a choice that one cannot but consider to be a great one. 
 
Another day, a fresh wound, on the side of his chest… The following day Diep was with me and after our visit, before mass, in front of the crucifix in the church, she asked me if I had seen the wound on the Crucifix… A moment of communion when the essential was said in few words! 
 
One Sunday morning, it was a greeting in a face illuminated by a radiant smile that welcomed us. The suffering face had disappeared and it was a transfigured, luminous face that was before us. That was the summit of our daily encounters in which most often we were there… facing just a big suffering body. That day I thought that perhaps he would not talk again, but it didn’t matter, he had let the essential appear: the radiance of Love in a life offered in Christ, conqueror of darkness and of death.
 
Sunday, the 7th of September, at 10 in the morning, he died, with the love of his life, his wife, close to him. 
Madame S. asked us, Diêp and me, to be at her side until her husband was cremated. 
 
For me, it was the discovery of how the Vietnamese family ex-presses its suffering when the final separation has taken place. I was surprised by these demonstrations because, here, feelings usually most often remain hidden. I wonder about the "why" of this custom: this externalisation of suffering during these occasions of great sorrow – might it enable people to experience the bereavement less severely?
 
Sr Colette 
30/04/2015
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