Planning and Attending Own Wake

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

MAY 29, 2017

Although this story from The New York Times, is not about a military man, it seems appropriate for Memorial Day. John Shields had a very full and wonderful life, certainly left the world a little better than he found it. When it was very clear that he was dying from his non-cancer illness, he decided that he wanted to leave on his worn terms. In British Columbia, that is legal under a carefully circumscribed system.

This amazing story is about him, his life, people who loved him, a gentle and thoughtful and committed doctor, and some very painful, but life-affirming decisions. I cannot urge you enough to take a few minutes and read the whole thing. Missing even a paragraph would be a loss. Just in case you don't, let me share this much:

Standing at his feet, Ms. Fox unfolded a copy. “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace,” she began. Mr. Shields mouthed the words silently. He had left Catholicism almost five decades before, but Catholicism had not entirely left him. It was as if all the disparate strands of his life were being woven into this final moment.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope.
“I think I’ve learned that lesson,” he said, when she finished.

At His Own Wake, Celebrating
Life and the Gift of Death

Tormented by an incurable disease, John Shields knew that dying openly and without fear could be his legacy, if his doctor, friends and family helped him.

VICTORIA, British Columbia — Two days before he was scheduled to die, John Shields roused in his hospice bed with an unusual idea. He wanted to organize an Irish wake for himself. It would be old-fashioned with music and booze, except for one notable detail — he would be present.
The party should take up a big section of Swiss Chalet, a family-style chain restaurant on the road out of town. Mr. Shields wanted his last supper to be one he so often enjoyed on Friday nights when he was a young Catholic priest — rotisserie chicken legs with gravy.
Then, his family would take him home and he would die there in the morning, preferably in the garden. It was his favorite spot, rocky and wild. Flowering native shrubs pressed in from all sides and a stone Buddha and birdbath peeked out from among the ferns and boulders.
Before he got sick, Mr. Shields liked to sit in his old Adirondack chair and watch the bald eagles train their juveniles to soar overhead. He meditated there twice a day, among the towering Douglas firs.
“Someone once asked me how did I get to become unique,” he said that afternoon in his hospice bed. “I recommend meditation as a starting place — bringing your consciousness to bear.”

Read more, and, I hope, all:

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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