Guest Columnist A Death of Desperation


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.

Mother Teresa often spoke of Christ’s presence in the destitute and dying, in their suffering and humility.It was, similarly, her tenderness in caring for them that made Christ present in her actions. From our own experiences, families that have come together to care for a dying loved one never fail to offer inspiration and hope. Giving someone the opportunity to love and care is like giving them the gift of meaning. It is in communion with others and through the love that binds us to one another that we walk with Christ. It is precisely during such moments of great suffering, emotional and physical, that we encounter Him. But yield control and trust His love we must. If we think of ourselves as painters, the time will come for all of us to step back from the canvas that is our life and place it below the cross.

My own mother passed away from pancreatic cancer a few years ago. It is said that this type of cancer is the most painful kind as, indeed, the patient often remains unresponsive to pain management. My mother suffered excruciating pain for about three months and eventually drifted in and out of consciousness. Family and friends who came by to see her often left the room to regain composure, so shocked were they by the sight of her emaciated self, of a woman who had once been beautiful and had always radiated love and warmth. Yet throughout physical agony and decline, she was the epitome of dignity, never complaining, demanding, or expressing bitterness. Letting my siblings and me care for her was her final gift to us. A few days before her passing, with what must have been some of the last energy her frail body could muster, she took my hand and squeezed it tightly. Unable to speak, this was her final maternal act,a simple act of love that contained in itself a mother’s immeasurable love for her child and a comfort beyond the limits of time and space. During her very last moments, it was I who held her hand again. Yet the time had come. She pulled away. Now it was God who took her hand to lead her through the last moments of a beautiful death and set her free.

Faced with the final threshold between life and death, between hope and despair, we are challenged to be our best. This final space of human encounter calls for final hope and reconciliation. Pride and pettiness must step aside,grudges must be buried, and we must rise to full defiance of despair. The dying and the caring, the surrendering and the giving, have a chance to bear witness to the kind of love, which is also Christ’s. Brittany Maynard chose to cut short this final stretch and thus refused a final gift to the living, the gift of hope and love.

Brittany Maynard missed the chance to die in dignity precisely, because she believed that dignity was a matter of personal control over body and mind. But dignity in its final triumph is the opposite. It is accepting the lack of control, complete humility, and the acceptance of love from the caring. She willed and accomplished death, but beauty there was none. As believers, let us beware of the fallacy of quick and easy exits.

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