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 | Dr. Sarah Bartel

Death with dignity In Christ

November is the month the Church remembers the dead. Throughout November, we visit cemeteries to honor our family members who have preceded us in death and we pray for the souls in purgatory. The Sunday Gospel readings place the final judgment and the end of time at the forefront of our minds, and we reflect on the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. This is a season for reflecting on the Christian’s attitude toward the dignity of the person in the end stages of life.

In Washington state last year, 203 terminally ill men and women ingested lethal medication obtained through the state’s assisted suicide program. How are we to respond to the desire of a terminally ill and suffering family member, friend, or parishioner to end their life? Is it true compassion to approve and celebrate that desire? We hear of “death with dignity” or “choices and compassion.” If we are not well-grounded in the perspective on life, death, frailty and suffering that Jesus opens up for us, we may easily become confused and misguided. This is a season for reflecting on the catechesis of the Gospel of Life.

What we find when we read St. John Paul II’s 1995 Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) is that “the way of love and true mercy” is “quite different” from the false mercy proposed by the culture of death. St. John Paul II lovingly, but clearly, warns us, “The temptation grows to take control of death and bring it about before its time, ‘gently’ ending one’s own life or the life of others. In reality, what might seem logical and humane, when looked at more closely is seen to be senseless and inhumane.” (64) True mercy does not eradicate suffering by eradicating the person who is suffering — even if that person asks for death. 
St. John Paul II reminds us that, while factors may affect a person’s subjective culpability, “suicide, when viewed objectively, is a gravely immoral act” which “involves the rejection of the love of self and the renunciation of the obligation of justice and charity towards one’s neighbor, towards the communities to which one belongs, and to society as a whole. In its deepest reality, suicide represents a rejection of God’s absolute sovereignty over life and death.” That is why “to concur with the intention of another person to commit suicide and to help in carrying it out through so-called ‘assisted suicide’ means to cooperate in, and at times to be the actual perpetrator of, an injustice which can never be excused, even if it is requested.” (66) The ripple effect of suicide leaves wounds in the family members, friends, and community left behind. It is contagious. Those who know someone who has ended their life are themselves at a greater risk for choosing suicide when they are suffering.

We know that suffering, joined to Christ’s suffering, has a meaning, purpose, and value — the saints speak of it as a gift, in fact. What a difference from seeing it as useless and meaningless. What a difference from seeing the elderly in our families as useless and purposeless, instead of surrounding them with reverence, connection, and care. The statistics gathered every year by the Department of Health tell the story of the pressure the elderly and terminally ill are now feeling from the presence of legalized assisted suicide: Over half of those who have requested death through this program in recent years cite their concerned about being a burden on family, friends, and care-givers.

We must show the elderly and terminally ill in our families and parishes that they are not a burden and their suffering is not useless or wasted. In his patient, faith-filled acceptance of his own decline, suffering, and death, St. John Paul II showed us a powerful example of true “death with dignity.” Let us build a culture of care, reverence, and respect for life.