Dying patients give nurse a glimpse of eternal life
November 2, 2023
As a nurse who for years has cared for the dying, Roseann Steffensmeier knows that the veil is thin that separates this life and the next.
She knows that as patients approach death, they often receive visits from loved ones, as do people who have had “near-death experiences.”
“The veil between us and them is very thin,” Steffensmeier said of those who have preceded us in death. “It’s just hard to see. You get a good glimpse of that, I think, when you’re dying.”
Steffensmeier – a member of St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion who has worked in the medical field for 50 years – said her career, especially her work in hospice care, has helped convince her of the truths of the faith.
“I found that my spirit and my spiritual life just exploded when I worked in hospice,” she said.
“When people say they don’t have this belief in Heaven or Hell, I just want to say to them ‘Well, come and work with me for a while. You’ll change your tune.’”
On All Soul’s Day and throughout November, Catholics remember those who have died and pray for their souls, finding hope in Jesus’ Resurrection.
“Death is transformed by Christ,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches.
“Jesus, the Son of God, also himself suffered the death that is part of the human condition. Yet, despite his anguish as he faced death, he accepted it in an act of complete and free submission to his Father’s will. The obedience of Jesus has transformed the curse of death into a blessing.”
The catechism further adds: “For those who die in Christ’s grace it is a participation in the death of the Lord, so that they can also share in his Resurrection.”
Steffensmeier, who has spent much of her career in hospice care and in oncology, said she has been blessed as a healthcare professional to witness the sacredness of death. She currently has two jobs in the Omaha area: as a nurse at a nursing home and rehabilitation center and as a case manager at a joint replacement practice. She has a bachelor’s degree in nursing and a certification in oncology.
She converted to Catholicism as a young adult and has helped others join the faith through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA, now known as Order of Christian Initiation of Adults, or OCIA). Steffensmeier also has been involved in Christians Encounter Christ (CEC), Ablaze Worship Ministry, Eucharistic adoration and as a cantor at Mass.
SIGNS OF DEATH
The dying process is unique for each person, “but there are some similarities,” she said. For some that includes seeing loved ones who have passed away.
One patient, a man in his 80s and in hospice care at his home, had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and could barely breathe, she said. Yet he stretched his oxygen tubing into his front yard, claiming his mother was there.
“By the time I got there, the sons had finally gotten him back into his chair. I said ‘Oh, he’s going. It’ll probably be today or tomorrow.’ And sure enough,” the man soon died.
Some people seem to get a burst of energy before death. Steffensmeier said she believes that the sudden energy is from a person’s spirit trying to detach itself from the body. “But the body’s like, ‘Well, OK, I’ll drag along for now, but not for long.’
“And that is the silver lining,” she said. “We try to explain that to families, that there’ll be a time for that silver lining when you get a chance to talk to them, and they’ll have that little burst of energy.”
God seems to offer the dying opportunities for mercy and a gradual detachment, Steffensmeier said.
The nurse saw those gifts in one particular instance that occurred about 30 years ago, when a young man was dying of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
“He grabbed ahold of my hand and he said ‘I’ve made some mistakes.’
“And I said ‘Oh, we all have. Do you want to talk to our chaplain?’”
“I really do want to,” he replied.
“And that was the first time he had said that,” Steffensmeier said. “This is God’s mercy and detachment,” she later told his family.
“What God does in the dying process is He takes them away a little bit at a time,” she said. “We describe to families that it’s like the patients, their loved ones, are in a boat, and they’re going out to go fishing. Then they come back to shore. When they come back to shore, they’re awake, alert. You can talk to them.
“But normally when they’re out in the boat, they don’t have the energy because their body is in the process of dying. They don’t have the energy to talk to you, but they will hear you.”
“They know what’s going on to some degree,” she said, “but they also know that they can see something else away from the shore.”
One hospice patient, whose husband had died 26 years earlier, missed him tremendously, Steffensmeier said.
One day her daughter approached the nurse’s desk, saying her mother was acting strangely.
When Steffensmeier walked in, the patient had her arms outreached to the ceiling “with the most joyous look on her face.’
“She kept pointing, and I looked at her and I said ‘What are you seeing?’ She couldn’t talk. She literally would look at me – she recognized me – and then she’d look up at the ceiling.”
“I said ‘Someone’s here to meet you.’ … She was shaking her head: yes, yes!
“Of course the son and daughter, they’re crying. And I said ‘Oh, this is normal. Someone is coming for her.”
Steffensmeier told the siblings that their mother would likely die in the next day or so. She died that night.
“I mean, it’s beautiful,” the nurse said of the patient’s experience. “It really is beautiful.”
Often the experiences of the dying help the survivors, too.
“I used to say to patients that the disease is a gift,” Steffensmeier said, “and they’d look at me like I’m crazy.”
She would explain that “healing not only can occur in the bed, but it needs to occur around the bed with families.”
“I’ve seen a lot of times when there’s some stupid thing that you got mad at sister or brother about, and it all ends up sounding very ridiculous,” she said. Later they would wonder ‘Why did I waste so much time?’
I think those kind of things consume people,” Steffensmeier said.
NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES
She recalled a former classmate’s story, of how the woman was at a family picnic at her house. She was on a swing in the backyard when she suddenly collapsed.
The woman said she could feel the ground and hear her husband call 911 and the ambulance as it approached.
She said she could hear the paramedics talking and feel it as they lifted her into the ambulance. During the drive she remembered one of them saying ‘We’re losing her.’
At that moment, the woman said, she saw her grandmother, grandfather and a 2-year-old nephew – all of whom had died – come toward her.
“And the little 2-year-old nephew ran towards me and ran into my arms and said ‘Oh, Auntie Eileen, what are you doing here?,” speaking to her as though he was an adult and suggesting it wasn’t her time to die yet.
The woman said the boy kissed her on the cheek, she sat him down, and he ran back to the grandparents.
Then she heard the ventilator in a hospital intensive care unit. She’d had a stroke.
Steffensmeier said her sister also had a near-death experience when she had a heart attack at age 55. She saw her father wearing the pinstriped suit he had worn in a family photo and pulling a red wagon. He turned to his daughter and said “Katherine Elizabeth, what are you doing here?”
Again, that was a sign that it wasn’t her time to die.
That scene was all the sister remembered, but she no longer feared death after the experience. She said dying is “like walking through a door,” according to Steffensmeier. “Don’t be afraid of it at all … What awaits us is just beautiful.”
Steffensmeier remembered a patient having the smell of “beautiful, sweet roses” in her room, a scent Steffensmeier attributed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, because the patient’s family had been praying the rosary around the clock for their mother.
A Protestant nurse said at the time “I’ve never smelled that. It’s so beautiful.”
“I’m like, ‘I’ve never smelled it either, but I know what it is.’”
Steffensmeier said that although she’s had worries about her own death, she’s learned to surrender those worries to the Lord.
“I’m learning trust,” she said. “You’ve just kind of got to let go of things.”
God has proven Himself to her through her own health struggles, she said. Steffensmeier said she sees Jesus as “my husband and my lover and my best friend wrapped into one.”
Throughout her life, “He has watched over me, taken me places, shown me things.”
Prayer for the Dead (from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)
In your hands, O Lord,
we humbly entrust our brothers and sisters.
In this life you embraced them with your tender love;
deliver them now from every evil
and bid them eternal rest.
The old order has passed away:
welcome them into paradise,
where there will be no sorrow, no weeping or pain,
but fullness of peace and joy
with your Son and the Holy Spirit
forever and ever.
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