We are a nation of contradictions. Lining the streets, we cheer the struggling marathoner as she bleeds her last drop of sweat and reaches the finish line. 26.2 miles, not one step less. Recently, many cheered another woman who opted not to cross the finish line and instead, ended her life before her cancer could claim it. I wonder how we can applaud two such contradictory responses to suffering. Does “dignity” mean persevering through pain till the end or does it mean controlling the how and when of the end?
Brittany Maynard ended her life on Saturday, November 1 as planned weeks earlier. Sunday, after her death was announced, the debate about her decision reached a fever pitch. Statements like, “Let the angels lead you in, Brittany RIP” provoked responses of, “Heaven is not where suicide takes you.” People on both sides were certain about where Brittany is now.
I want to make it clear that my intent here is not to speculate on the judgment of Brittany’s soul. The remarks that I make will apply to her because she chose to end her life through assisted suicide but, as she is no longer in this world, the aftermath, politics and even morality of her decision can no longer impact her. Her choices are in the past.
While the purpose of this article is not to judge Brittany Maynard, it is to judge the act of suicide as a response to terminal illness or any other illness involving prolonged suffering. The distinction of judging a choice versus judging a person is entirely lost on many people—particularly young people—today. For them, to say an action is wrong is to condemn the person who chose that action. This is why, in so many discussions, debate is subverted by name-calling and personal attacks. Brittany Maynard was cleverly used by the right to die movement because so many people cannot see past her youth and beauty to discuss the real issue. In many ways, she herself has become the issue in many people’s minds because her story is tragic and she is so relatable.
The truth is though, the debate about assisted suicide is not about Brittany Maynard. Ultimately, it is about who is in charge of life and death. Or, put in more religious terms—does God exist and, if so, what is our responsibility to Him?
It makes sense to me that those who do not believe in God or an afterlife would support assisted suicide. If all that’s left of life is pain and there’s nothing after life, why not avoid the pain? But I do not believe that atheism itself makes sense and atheists make up a very small minority of americans. For those who do believe in God and believe that He is both all-powerful and all-good, it should be very clear that assisted suicide is against His will. All powerful, God can do anything. He can cure or not cure, allow death or prolong life. If God has the power to cure but does not and the power to end suffering but does not, what does that mean? One possibility is that God delights in our pain. But that is not possible if He is all good. An all good God could not rejoice in the pain and suffering of His children.
So, if God is powerful and good AND suffering and pain are present in life, it must mean that it is part of God’s plan. Cutting it short would not be working within His will.
But there’s an infinitely better proof that God desires to set our finish lines for us.
In the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus literally sweat blood at the thought of what He would endure, He begged, “Father, if it be Your will, let this cup pass from me”. Luke 22:42 Let. It. Pass. He must have known the impossibility of what He was asking but He asked anyway. Still, He told His Father, “Not my will, but Yours be done”. We know that Jesus went on to suffer a horrific death for us. God could have saved Him. Son of God, Jesus could have ended His own suffering at any time. He didn’t. If He didn’t, should we?
Witnesses at the time would hardly have called Jesus’ death “dignified” but we know what it accomplished. There was much more going on that sad Friday on Calvary than could be seen with the eye. The victories of the terminally ill who live out their days in dignity are also mostly hidden from view. Surrender and sacrifice can be very quiet, internal things and acceptance, a silent place for waiting.
In her book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined the process of dying as experienced by terminally ill patients. Given time, patients work through denial, anger, bargaining and depression to arrive at the final phase of acceptance. “Acceptance should not be mistaken for a happy stage. It is almost void of feelings. It is as if the pain had gone, the struggle is over and there comes a time for ‘the final rest before the long journey’, as one patient phrased it.” (Kubler-Ross, 124)
What she describes sounds a lot like peace.
Family reported that Brittany Maynard died peacefully but I’m not convinced our definitions are the same. In any case, if successful, her advocacy for broader access to suicide pills will likely mean that fewer people have the choice to reach the kind of peace that Kubler-Ross described. Inevitably, the right-to-die movement will stand on its head and become the duty-to-die (rather than become an expensive inconvenience) movement. It is the obvious next step. We are a country addicted to cheering our suffering athletes but intolerant of suffering we cannot control. We are addicted to money and healthcare is expensive. Weigh the cost of a few pills against months and years of treatments and you may be able to calculate the value of a human life as far as the insurance companies are concerned.
Bleak and cynical as that sounds, we are not there yet. There are things we can do to go a different way. I will offer two. First, terminally ill patients cannot finish their marathons alone. They need support teams. Good pain management is essential as is daily caregiving. Hospice organizations exist to provide end of life care and assist families in caring for loved ones at home. They are uniquely poised as an alternative to assisted suicide (provided they do not offer those services themselves). Supporting hospice financially or as a volunteer is a concrete way to stand up for the value of life until its natural end.
My second suggestion is a bit more personal. In the eulogy he gave at my grandmother’s funeral in 1999, my Uncle Rick told the story of the day of her mother’s, my great grandmother’s, funeral many years earlier. My grandmother was very close to her mother and must have been suffering greatly that day. My uncle asked her why she wasn’t more outwardly distressed. She answered, “All of my life, I have been practicing on the little moments of difficulty, so today, in this big moment of suffering, I am prepared”. My grandmother, Margaret Roselia Kreitzer, was a wise woman.
Each one of us can develop a habit of suffering well by practicing, as my grandmother did, on the little moments in life. Even if I wanted to, I could not choose a life free from suffering but I can decide how I will live through it when it comes–complaining and avoiding it or practicing patience and acceptance. Waiting in traffic, fighting a headache, losing something special, fasting during Lent–these are all small preparatory opportunities should I choose to approach them that way. This is no small thing. Accepting tiny suffering–and bigger suffering as it comes–lights a candle in the darkness of hopelessness. A light that testifies to the strength and the dignity of the human spirit.
::Alice Doyle is the proud sister in law of Martina Kreitzer, founder of Catholic Sistas. Both older and wiser than Martina, Alice is pleased to be able to share her wisdom with the readership of CS. Alice has one doting husband, five daughters and a dog named Alfred. She speaks Spanish, home schools her girls, teaches CCD and is an aspiring writer and photographer. Alice endeavors to live up to the quote, “You are so much sunshine, to the square inch!” (Walt Whitman)::