Befriending death – by Dr Katherine Pettus

Categories: Opinion.

Death, because it is something all human beings, no matter how privileged, will experience, is profoundly, transhistorically, and universally democratic. Although the conditions of dying are wildly inequitable, death itself excludes no one from its ultimate embrace. Paradoxically though, each death is unique and individual!

In any man who dies there dies with him
his first snow and kiss and fight.
It goes with him.

There are left books and bridges
and painted canvas and machinery.
Whose fate is to survive.

But what has gone is also not nothing:
by the rule of the game something has gone.
Not people die but worlds die in them.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “People”


Billions of people have died since the human species began: all our ancestors died and generations to come will die. People of all nations, religions, classes, and ages.

We are all in it — our dying — together. In this togetherness, death is an invitation to radical belonging and fellowship, what Christians call ‘the Kindgom,’ the dimension of being that welcomes all and excludes none. On the other side of the Kingdom, those who are biologically alive, not necessarily ‘living,’ continue their daily activities: excluding, killing, wounding, oppressing, and doing everything possible to avoid death — the great leveler — for themselves, while inflicting it on others.

A more joyful attitude can arise when we begin to see death and dying as a portal to a great fellowship, textured in solidarity with all the billions who have gone before and will go in the future.

In this vision, the dying, lonely, cancerous, and demented are redeemed, no longer shamed, excluded, or vilified. Individuals and communities can begin to live into that reality by befriending death, to use Henri Nouwen’s phrase, to see it is an opportunity to enter into solidarity with all brothers and sisters everywhere rather than to ‘lose’ them, as the popular narrative describes death.

Befriending death entails forgiveness, because only forgiveness brings true peace, as Pope Francis said:

outside of forgiveness there is no hope; outside of forgiveness there is no peace. Forgiveness is the oxygen that purifies the air of hatred, forgiveness is the antidote to the poisons of resentment, it is the way to defuse anger and heal so many maladies of the heart that contaminate society.

Pope Francis, Angelus, September 17 2023.

A Catholic priest, Muslim imam, and professional chaplain at a recent interfaith international dialog on the International Day of Peace titled “Is peace in serious health related suffering and at the end of life possible?” all answered the question in the affirmative.

All function as members of interdisciplinary palliative care teams in Zambia, the UK, and the US, respectvely, and all conflrmed that reframing “end of life” as a period of hope, healing and forgiveness, a journey towards a more luminous dimension of communion with those they love, brings peace both to the dying person, staff, and the family members accomponying them.

All encouraged the formation and inclusion of spiritual care professionals in palliative care to support patients and families, as well as the care teams themselves.

Best practice palliative care is a modern evolutionary trigger. Bringing grace and connection to the process of serious illness and dying one bedside at a time builds the Beloved Community, ushering in a kingdom in which believers, non-believers, and their loved ones alike are most welcome.


Katherine Pettus is a Palliative care paraclete advocating for the right of patients to receive internationally controlled essential medicines to relieve preventable pain and suffering.

This article is republished from Katherine’s blog  with permission.


Previous articles by Katherine Pettus published in ehospice are:

Make supply chains for essential palliative care medicines fit for 21st century purpose!

Palliative Care: the Pearl of Great Price

The grateful leper and the miracle of morphine

UN declared October 29 the First International Day of Care and Support

Turning the Purple and Green states Pink


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