Nov 5, 2014
Brittany Maynard is dead. She chose to end her life of 29 years with lethal medication on November 2. She thus precluded an inevitable ordeal of physical and mental decline due to an aggressive brain tumor. No doubt, she envisioned a beautiful, peaceful death, surrounded by her husband, family, and best friend. But was it so? The idea of willed and orchestrated death coupled with a clarity of mind set on final mastery of fate, fills us with unease and even horror. Death and what follows will always be a mystery to us. Depending on the intensity of our faith, we will fear it or embrace its promise. Yet accept its reality we must. And there are different ways of doing so. Brittany Maynard chose the least comforting, least meaningful kind.
In a way, the dying in the western world never had it so good. Palliative care, the treatment of any kind of physical pain to the point of near unconsciousness, is prevalent and accepted by the Church. No matter the ailment, a person can be made to feel almost painless in the face of physical decline. However, physical pain is not what seems to ail the modern person most. It is the idea of slowly drifting away,of increasing physical dependence on others, of physical decline and loss of control. It is the idea that somehow our personal dignity is tied up with personal mastery of circumstance and fate. However, as Catholics we know that there is dignity in humility, in accepting our human frailty and in surrendering to the inevitable. This, indeed, is the ultimate dignity to a believing Christian and the sign of a beautiful death.
Much has been said and written about the merits of suffering, about facilitating a state of grace,about the beauty of sharing in Christ’s suffering. However, such a perspective can easily turn into measuring someone else’s state of suffering and state of faith. Only God knows the depth of a person’s despair and level of pain. However,if we see the acceptance of suffering as an act of love, then it becomes something beautiful even by human standards. Allowing others to care for oneself during such helpless times is a gift to this world. It is an act of generously offering oneself by accepting one’s own helplessness and the love of others.
The process of dying and the suffering that surrounds such an occurrence creates a space for the most intense and meaningful encounters. Through the suffering of physical pain,emotional anxiety, and physical decline the warm light of self-less love will shine through with greatest intensity. It is the love of children caring for their parent, the love of parents for a child, of friends and relatives. It is the purest love confronted not only with the pain of the moment, but also with all pain. It is the redeeming love of Christ looking down from the Cross at the suffering of this world. It is a chance for those who tend to the dying to rise above the fears and anxieties of existence through their love and devotion.Love trumps all and this is never clearer than in our care for the dying.