Hope for a good death at heart of ministry

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Hope for a good death at heart of ministry

In 31 years of hospital ministry, Fr Gerald Quinn says he’s never seen a ‘bad death’.

“I would certainly have seen a tragic death, from say, a tragic accident, but I wouldn’t have used the term a ‘bad death’,” says the Catholic chaplain to the Royal Hobart Hospital.

“Whereas my focus would be on all the wonderful help that people have been given to make the best of their lives. Even if it is only a few hours.”

Passionist priest Fr Gerald is called to the deathbed of a dying person around 50 times a year.

Visiting Catholics and non-religious people alike, his experiences have provided him with a unique insight into the possibility of finding peace and fulfilment in the very last stages of life.

His obvious joy and love of a corny joke does not mean he has not seen his fair share of sad situations.

The hospital staff who do a “wonderful job” will ask him to visit those dying without family or friends.

“Usually they’re very grateful,” Fr Gerald says, of these patients. “If they’re a practicing Catholic, they’re enormously grateful.”

A great joy for Fr Gerald is not only administering the sacraments, but also a special Apostolic Pardon (which he has nicknamed the ‘gold pass’) – an indulgence for a person who is dying.

For those who don’t want the sacraments, he offers to pray.

“They're often very happy about that.”

He has witnessed a lot of good deaths (“I see very many of them, where people clearly get peace.”) but he says he doesn’t often encounter people suffering unmanageable pain.

“Because of modern pain relievers, I would say there’s less and less of that. Whereas, in days gone by without good pain relief, they would be in a lot of pain. If they know the patient is in a lot of pain, they’ll be able to give them something to relieve the pain,” he said.

Many of the people he encounters are worried about dying.

“That’s a natural reaction – most people are. They don’t actually want to die. It’s very good news when the doctor tells them they’re not going to die.”

That might sound trite, but Fr Gerald is brimming with stories of people recovering when they have been declared to be dying. 

Cases include a 22-year-old woman in a scuba diving accident (“Even though she had been declared incurable, she recovered completely and went back to her own country.”); a young Tasmanian thought to almost certainly be brain damaged (“That’s often the story. She completely recovered, no damage at all and no so long ago gave birth to her first child.”); a teenager with meningococcal disease expected to be dead by morning, who received the sacraments, recovered, and is back with his family on the mainland.

He says it’s a common thing for people to outlive a terminal, or life-limiting, diagnosis.

“A recent funeral that I had: the family told me that a sister who died, she was diagnosed as terminal, something like 21 years before. And she lived another 21 years and died peacefully,” he said.

“Going back over the 31 years there have been just so many cases where people who had already a terminal diagnosis and recovered, so I’ve seen miracles galore.

“So we’re not saying that the diagnosis was wrong, but we are saying that prayer can change it,” he said.

“I get to see those amazing stories all the time. As the hymn says: amazing grace.”