Giving One's Death Away

Ronald Rolheiser
June 17, 2024
Reproduced with Permission

According to the renowned mystic John of the Cross, we have three essential struggles in life: to get our lives together, to give our lives away, and to give our deaths away. What is asked of us in the first two struggles is more obvious. But what does it mean to give our deaths away?

In essence, it means this: How we die leaves behind a legacy, a particular spirit, which either nurtures or haunts those left behind. If we die in bitterness and anger, not at peace with our loved ones, ourselves, and our God, we will leave behind a spirit which is more toxic than nurturing. Conversely, if we die reconciled and at peace with our loved ones, the world, and with God, then like Jesus, we will leave behind a spirit which nourishes, warms, consoles, and gives our loved ones sacred permission to be at peace. How we die colors our legacy, and that legacy is either a gift or a burden to those we leave behind.

On November 23rd, 2023, Richard (Rick) Gaillardetz, a renowned theologian, died of pancreatic cancer while still in the prime of his life. He was a loving husband, father, grandfather, gifted lecturer, friend and mentor to many, a sports enthusiast, with a robust sense of humor. He also had a solid Christian faith that would be put to the test during the months of his terminal illness.

When he was diagnosed with cancer more than a year before he died, his doctors told him it was terminal, there was to be no cure; he needed to face the brutal fact he was going to die within the next two years. He did face that. Moreover, in doing so, he tried (not without some agonizing struggles) to make his death a conscious gift to his family and to the world. During the months leading up to his death, he kept a blog which shared what it is like to know you are dying and to accept that in love and faith, even within the agony of having to let go of life and wrestle with the powerful instinctual resistances within us.

Those blogs have been brought together in a book, While I Breathe I Hope - A Mystagogy of Dying, edited by Grace Agolia.

Here are some of Rick's feelings and thoughts:

In his farewell speech to his disciples, Jesus promised that after he had been taken from us, he would leave behind his spirit, the spirit of peace. When we go away we all leave behind us an unspoken spirit which affects those we have left behind. If we die at peace with God, others, and ourselves, then like Jesus, our loved ones, while grieving our loss, will in the deeper part of themselves, feel nourished, warmed, and consoled by their every memory of us.

Rick Gaillardetz RIP, you have left us (family, friends, the world) the gift of peace.