This week when I preached I went off on a little bit of a rant. I have had a lot of people since speak to me about said rant, and their appreciation for it, so I thought I would share it with you on the blog. This is rather more controversial than I usually lean here, which makes me anxious, but here I go…
The rant revolved around the current discussion in our culture regarding the legalization of doctor assisted suicide. Now, obviously, I could spend quite some time talking about the nuances of that situation, and my own beliefs about it, but that was not what my rant was about. My rant was about the phrase, often used by those in support of doctor assisted suicide, “dying with dignity.” My rant is about what the opposite implies –that those who die difficult deaths are somehow “undignified” by comparison.
A few weeks ago I heard a woman explain it just this way. She was being interviewed on a radio show about her own mother’s wishes to be able to end her life before her disease took its full course. She said something like: “At the end my mother couldn’t do anything for herself. She had to depend on others. She was in pain. It would’ve been nice if she could have died with dignity.”
I sympathize with this woman, truly. Watching your loved one die and suffer is something for which you can never be prepared and harder than you could ever imagine. But I must respectively disagree with her choice of language – because I do not believe her mother died without dignity. I do not believe that being in pain or needing others removed the dignity from her death, because I see neither of those things as “undignified.”
Instead, I agree with Amy Plantinga Pauw who wrote this some years ago in an essay called “Dying Well: “What does dying well mean for those who suffer “bad deaths” and for the loved ones they leave behind? Here the fact that dying well is not an individual practice but a shared one is especially significant…”
A shared experience.
That is not the same as an easy experience. It is profoundly difficult to share the journey to death with someone. It is difficult to watch them lose their abilities, their independence, their sense of self. I can only imagine how hard it is on the one who is dying. But I do not believe it is undignified.
I do not believe it is undignified to need others. I do not believe it is undignified to allow yourself to be cared for. I do not believe it is undignified to come to the place where we can survive only if we have others.
Nor do I believe it is undignified to be in pain. Of course, I do not wish pain on anyone. When I remember back to the last days of my sister’s life, one of the most difficult memories for me is the way that she would wince in pain. Because she died of melanoma, at the end her body was covered with open tumors – and they hurt. She had several tumors on her head and each time she would move, she would wince. It was awful. Even as I remember it now, tears come to my eyes. The memory of that wince haunts me sometimes. I would have loved to have taken it from her.
But let me be clear – I don’t think it was undignified. It was hard and it was awful. But in every wince and every moment, there was never a loss of dignity.
As a pastor, I have journeyed with more people towards death than most people my age. I have seen peaceful deaths and I have seen hard deaths. I have sung over people in their last moments as they slipped peacefully to eternity and I have prayed for comfort through pain for those that struggled to the end. I have wished for things to be different and I have been thankful for what it is. And I have seen dignity.
I have seen dignity in people willing to be led, and held, and nurtured as they give their loved ones the gift of caring for them. I have seen dignity in people who face the end and say “I am frightened,” and I have marveled at their honesty. I have seen dignity in those who have said “I am not afraid,” and I have marveled at their faith. I have seen dignity in people who are drooling. And wearing adult diapers. And catheters. I have seen dignity in people who say embarrassing things because they are full of pain medications and dignity in people who can no longer speak. When I have seen someone in a vulnerable moment in their final days, I have never thought: “If only they had dignity…” I have thought: “God is here.” “I hope I can have such strength.” “Thank-you God, for this person’s life.”
The real truth is that the greatest dignity I have seen in death is often in those who have suffered most, as impossible as that might seem to those of us who have not yet suffered. I only wish that more people had the opportunity to sit at deathbeds and see the dignity that comes to those that endure. It may not be pretty – but it is beautiful.
Now, I know there will be many views about doctor assisted suicide among those who read these words. And I do certainly understand that it is out of compassion that many of you will argue in favour of this cause. I understand that you do not want people to suffer needlessly. I understand that you are operating out of love, and not hate.
And so, I appeal to your sense of compassion and love – stop calling it “dying with dignity.” Call it doctor assisted suicide. Call it euthanasia. Call it end of life decision making. Make your points and your arguments and see where we all land. But no more “dignity” language – please. No more implying that those who suffered or those who needed to rely on others or those whose final days were messy and painful died without it.
Language is important, so, please – give the dead, the dying, and those who will die someday in ways that are hard the dignity of a rightly named death. Perhaps they have died differently than seems fair or reasonable, but they have, indeed, died well. They have indeed died with dignity.
Thus endeth my rant.