Four weeks before she died, Elizabeth Wang did some brief interviews with journalist Elena Curti for the Art of Dying Well project. Elena wanted to ask a Catholic who was terminally ill what it was like to face death and what helped them in this difficult time. The interviews are not long, but they give an insight into Elizabeth's heart at the end of her life, and they touch not just on suffering and death but also on the love of God and the journey of faith.
The videos are not great quality - they were filmed by Fr Stephen Wang on his mobile phone in order for Elena to have materials she could use as text on the website.
Below the videos there is a written text of the main themes of the videos, which was transcribed from the interviews and then edited by Elizabeth afterwards.
Five short videos - please follow the links below:
Interviews with Elizabeth Wang for Elena Curti, 13 August 2016 (by Fr Stephen Wang)
These interviews were done for journalist Elena Curti for the Art of Dying Well project.
Elizabeth died four weeks later on 10 Sept 2016.
What was your reaction when you were told you were terminally ill.
It was a relief, because there had been a mystery about what was wrong, because there were so many opposing opinions of the radiologists; it was a relief finally to have a surgeon say there was a definite diagnosis; it was too late to do anything about it; and this to me meant that I wouldn’t be subjected to various experimental types of treatment, and that I could tell the family something definite and then we could go on from there; we wouldn’t be living in puzzlement for months.
What was your human or personal reaction to the news?
It was something I had known for a long time. I am a person who prays. I have prayed for 50 years and more. I believe I have come to know our Blessed Lord to some degree, and he told me a long time ago that I didn’t have along time to live; in fact he told me a few weeks ago that he would have some good news for me soon, and this was the good news, that I didn’t have a long time, that it was definite, but that he had things he wanted me to do. So I knew he was in control not myself, so we just went on from there one day to the next.
Did you set out a plan for what you wanted to do with this time left?
No, because I have always tried to spend my time fulfilling his plan. Not because I am especially good but because he is, and I know his plans are always wisest. I didn’t have what people nowadays call a “bucket list”, I just wanted to do what he wanted every day, and I knew that He would have some very sensible suggestions.
And what have been the most important things that you have been doing in this time, knowing it is near the end of your life?
There are two things. The first is that I am very involved with my family, and they all gathered together as soon as they heard this news, and they with myself discussed it, they were very concerned for me and very sad, but at the same time wanted to do the best for me; so all together we made plans, which seemed the best for me and for them, looking ahead to the sort of future nursing that I might need, with this particular disease. So the plans went ahead as building plans, to get me a toilet and a shower right next to the current room I am living in; because I have been ill for years with spinal problems, so I have slept downstairs for years, so that went ahead, the building and the plans and the conversation with my family. The other thing was wanting to fulfil the Lord’s plans, and he has led me one day at a time always, and it’s his plans that I have wanted to fulfil and that means trying to love him more, and my neighbour, and to carry on with ordinary life as far as possible, so I go to daily Mass, and I try to consider my husband and children and grandchildren, and I haven’t thought in terms of “oh what do I wish I could do next or what must I do while I have the chance”, it’s just daily life gone on, but having to be tweaked in some ways so that I don’t make it more difficult for the family, or so that I do fulfil the Lord’s plans whatever they are for each moment.
Do you believe that you have been in control of what you do, as far as possible?
I hope I have, because everyone of us ought to be in control in the sense of having made measured plans for our lives as far as it is possible. I have tried to be in control, because as soon as there is something serious like this happening, there are always suggestions, not just from people who love you as my family do, but from people immensely keen to have you fulfil their plans for your greater good; I mean some doctors and nurses and some others cannot fathom people who do not make some effort to have chemotherapy or whatever they have in mind. This hasn’t been the case fortunately with the surgeon who would have operated had this been the path. I have met odd people who cannot understand it when you do not follow the plans that they or their relations would desperately follow in similar circumstances.
EXTRA QUESTIONS – general
What would you say to someone afraid of dying
I would be immensely sympathetic and compassionate, because it is the sort of primaeval fear that so many people have. I don’t have it myself, because God has done so much for me, and that is one of the things he has done. He has taken away all my fear. I can’t guarantee it will remain like that, but I hope it will; I hope and trust it will. But to someone else I would say: if you love God and your neighbour, and turn to him and trust in him, he will help you. He really is as simple and as good as that. But it’s when we remain locked up in our own fears that we don’t let him in to help us, so someone would have all my sympathy; but I would lay before them a few simple ways of trying to change their minds and hearts.
What would you say to someone who was in great suffering, and didn’t know how to cope with it very well.
I have had a lot of suffering in various ways, and specifically through the spine problems that I have had, and various others, which involve tremendous pain; and at one stage there was very little alleviation suggested or given. And I went to the saints and the spiritual writers, and found that what they say is achievable and can be done. They talk about offering up one’s sufferings in union with the sufferings of Christ. And if we don’t believe in Christ this must seem just fantasy. But if we do believe and we do do this, we know how close he is, because he became one of us on earth; and if we do try to offer up all our pain in union with him, he gives us tremendous help in that way, as do prayers to the saints, or rather requests of the saints that they pray to God for us, because their prayers are powerful, just as ours can be for other people, because we are all united in one spiritual body, and that’s part of our faith.
To offer up our sufferings means that we are not alone in them. Jesus Christ has been through every sort of suffering on earth that he could possibly have borne; he hasn’t been through old age or childbirth for example, but every type of physical and mental torture had been inflicted upon him, and he showed us how to deal with it. He didn’t complain, he didn’t hate those who made him suffer; he accepted what this was; although it seemed horrible, it was part of God’s plan for his life (God the Father’s plan, because Jesus is God); he accepted that there was a plan for his life, and that this was the way it was apparently going to end, because he knew, being God, that he would rise from the dead. So there was this tremendous hope in him, that the Father would fulfil his promises, and so for him to act as he did, as we read in the Gospels, in terrific patience and love, and pleading for forgiveness for those who crucified him, not showing resentment for those who mocked him while he was in agony on the Cross; and full of love for those who stood by him. His own mother stood by and watched him in his suffering and bore it with him. He wants us to act like this when we suffer; not to tear strips out of other people, or to progress into huge amounts of self pity, but rather to pity other people who are suffering, and to try to help them by our prayers and patience; to try to help those who have terrific compassion for us, that we mustn’t make it worse by our self pity.
What would you say to someone who is finding it hard to pray; who maybe has a weak faith and wants to pray but is finding it hard?
I would say: it doesn’t matter if you are finding it hard, because if you do pray at all regularly and believe a little of the Catholic faith, you know that God is good. It’s at the heart of our faith – and he wants us to pray to him; he wants us to find peace in him; and if we turn to him and don’t seem to feel anything, and don’t seem to feel the peace we long to have – it doesn’t matter. Because it is faith and trust that count in the Christian life, it’s not feelings; although feelings are very pleasant if we get them. If we actually know that God is good, if we believe that, we can believe it all of the time. He’s not good one minute and bad the next; he doesn’t change. I’m thinking of an image he once gave me of a woman seated, in great pain and suffering, but Christ is standing behind her with his arms round her from behind; and the meaning is that even if we can’t see Christ, he is still with us, he is embracing us, he is urging us to imitate him, to carry on in our difficulties, and he is beside us, even if we don’t see him or hear his words. If we hang on to that thought we won’t lose heart.
What would you say to someone who is finding it hard to believe, or they have lots of doubts and questions because of their suffering or illness?
I have always found the Catholic faith, faith in Jesus Christ and all that implies, to be something not only true but also worthy of belief, and I have worked out from the beginning in early adult life that if it is true, it must always be true; he is the same person at each moment, he is not moody or changeable, so I have never had doubts about the faith since I decided to accept it, but if ever my faith has made me sigh in a weary sort of way (“Oh gosh how can I carry on”), straining to be patient or heroic or good or just kind to people who despise me or whatever it is, the solution is not to force oneself to believe, but to pray. It’s always the same answer – to turn to God and to pray, and to be honest and say “I am finding life difficult, I am finding faith difficult”; this is why Jesus said at one point, “If you are like little children...” you will be all right; it’s that simplicity in his presence that he wants to hear and see in us.
Coming near the end of your life, what would you wish to share with people – what are the most important things that you would long for people to know?
They are the things I have been trying to speak about and teach for the last four or five decades in a way that has led to an association I have founded called Radiant Light. I want to share the truth about God and his nature and about his tremendous love for us, which is not something woolly or fluffy, but it’s a powerful love that never fails and never ends. He is good, he is permanently good, he always wishes what is best for us; he is never out to trap us or catch us out, but wants us all to go to heaven. This is why it’s so important for people to believe in him, to trust in him, to believe that he can make them holy, and to keep on trying to please him even when it seems impossible, and we are getting despairing because of our weaknesses and sins, or the hard times we are leading. This is the great message: God loves you and he has a plan for your life too, each one of us he has a plan for and we can find it out it we use the gifts he has given us, principally prayer, the Church, and all its guidance, and the sacraments, which make us very strong and can make us holy; you can’t tell how holy, that is not our business. Our business is to cooperate with God and to achieve what we can achieve of goodness in our little place on us; and to trust that our trust in God will result in his will being done in our little place on earth. If he wants us to do great things, we will lead us to those; if he wants us to do little things faithfully, he will show us how to do that too. He is always good and always worth trusting. And of course Christ’s Holy Mother, and the saints, who have been through all this before.
Faith is a gift from God. Anyone can have it: if we ask for it, or if other people are praying for us to have it; but if we shut our hearts to it – we shan’t receive it. By shutting our hearts I mean, if we think about faith and it’s claims by ordinary people in the Church we could easily say – it’s ridiculous, how could anyone rise from the dead, and similar things; but that is to shut one’s heart to what God wants us to believe and what he wants us to do, which is to trust in him, even though we are sadly aware of our sinfulness too. It must be tragic when people deliberately refuse to believe, right to the end of their lives; or when they deliberately refuse to keep God’s commandments, again, right to the end of their lives, without ever being really sorry; when they imagine they know better than God, as if he is a fool who doesn’t know what is best for the people who have received his gift of life.
About God’s goodness: If we look and listen and learn from others I believe there is evidence of God’s goodness all around us. If we say to ourselves “It’s ridiculous, how can anyone believe that God is good when there is so much suffering in the world, for example; when children are dying”. There are some questions we can’t answer now; yet some of us who are suffering and are probably going to go through dreadful experiences can still say, “God is good; I know it; he has proved it; he doesn’t need to - I don’t deserve it, to demand things of him; but he loves to do things for us and to give us things”. So I hope that people will see the evidence all around us, in the kindness of good human hearts, and in the beauty and order in the whole universe. Imagine learning, at the moment of death, that one has been mocking the One God who has worked, again and again, to help us to open our eyes to the truth.
People ask me: do I mind dying. One of the first things I say is: No, I long to see Christ; I long to see Jesus Our Lord; I long to see his mother; I long to see God the Father who is the end to which we are all reaching in the Church. Jesus said “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”, and yet to see the Father and the Holy Spirit and Jesus as the Most Blessed Trinity, it must be a blessing beyond compare to see the Holy Trinity and to know that one is loved to that degree. So I always say to people: I want to see God.