The elderly die alone, surrounded by healthcare workers wearing protective clothing, separated from their loved ones. How life has changed.

“A happy death" is what many Irish people prayed for over and over again. Those dying from COVID-19, here in Ireland, are mainly in their eighties and nineties. These are the generations who knelt down every night, for many decades and recited the family rosary. The "trimming" that followed included prayers for the conversion of Russia, prayers for President John F. Kennedy, prayers for relations who had emigrated, and lastly, prayers for a happy death.

Many novenas were said specifically for a happy death. Saint Joseph, the patron saint of a happy death, was prayed to frequently.

I learned in school, in 1950s Ireland, that a happy death was one where the priest would be present to administer the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, now called Anointing of the Sick. I’m sure that the image of a happy death for most people also included having their family around them.

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It breaks my heart to read about the reality of the deaths most of these old people are actually experiencing now – in spite of all their prayers. They have no priest in attendance nor any family members. Instead they are surrounded by what must appear as aliens to many of them – nurses clad in protective gear with their whole faces covered. How very very sad.

At Mass, in a parish church in the Irish midland (before the COVID crisis) a matron of a local nursing home asked could she address the congregation. She told them that many old people in her nursing home had no relations visiting them. When they are very close to death they are all alone. Her staff, she said, are much too busy to sit for hours with them. She asked the congregation would some of them volunteer to be available to come in to sit beside the dying person’s bed and recite the rosary with them. She said that this would be a great comfort to the person, so close to death. Priests are so scarce in that parish that it is almost impossible to find one available.

No one volunteered, as there were very few people at the Mass and most of them were close to death themselves.

How life has changed in Ireland from when these people were young! Hopefully, God has been listening to all the prayers said by them throughout their long lives for a happy death. Hopefully, He has been with them at their end.

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