A lot of people wonder what happens to a sister when she is sick or dying. Is she sent home? Is she sent to the hospital? How is she cared for?
When a person is fully a member of a religious community, the community is with her 100%. Should she become physically or mentally ill or whatever, the community takes care of her and does not abandon her. She is still a vital member of the community even though she may have to find new ways of expressing this.
Let me give you an example of a sister who was cared for by the community and who, down to her last breath (unable to communicate well or get out of bed), was a vital member of the community. I remember a day when one of my dear IHM sisters was sick and dying. Normally when a sister is dying, there are always sisters sitting vigil with her. Our nuns make sure someone is always in the room or nearby so the sister is not alone. So this one day I went in to see my dear sister Mary Ann. The sister with her graciously left so we’d have some time alone together. I went to her bed and just held her hand and talked to her. She was not really awake and I wasn’t sure if she knew I was there. She didn’t open her eyes or make any response. I wanted to be strong for her as she had always been for me, but I just couldn’t muster up any strength. So I started praying the Hail Mary aloud. Amazingly Mary Ann, in a barely audible voice, said a few of the phrases of the Hail Mary. At that moment I knew that of course she knew I was there and with what little breath and energy she had, she consoled me — she was still being there for me, comforting me like she always did when things were tough. I stayed with Mary Ann a while longer, just sitting in vigil with her. It was one of the most grace-filled moments of my life. Mary Ann died not long afterwards.
The community takes care of one another in sickness and in health. We stand with one another, not always perfectly, but with great love, care and affection. Even when a sister is dying, she can be a source of life and energy and love for all those around her, the sisters, the housekeeping staff, the family members, the health care staff. Everyone. Although being sick or having a serious chronic illness isn’t the same thing as dying, the way we care for one another is the same. It isn’t always pretty being sick, but it is a true blessing to have sisters who care so deeply and would move mountains for you.