Encouraging the terminally-ill to live

On page four of The Anchor we read about North Carolina seminarian Phillip Johnson and how he is dealing with his terminal diagnosis of cancer. He is no “Pollyanna” about the difficulties he will face, but he wishes to take this cross and use it in a way to help other people embrace the Salvation that Jesus offers us; in particular he is praying for Brittany Maynard, another young person with a terminal illness. Unlike Johnson, she wants to “do it my way” (to quote a Frank Sinatra song, which he most likely regrets singing now that God has shown him how many people have used it as a justification for their own arrogant selfishness) and pick the day and the hour when she will die (she moved to Oregon, so that she could take advantage of the physician-assisted suicide law there and had announced that she was going to commit suicide on November 1. Press reports this week said that Maynard was still going to take her own life, but might not be married to that date, due to how her illness is progressing).

Please read about Johnson’s embracing of the cross. Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he is not jumping for joy about what he is facing, but he also has the attitude of “Thy will be done.” Another terminal cancer sufferer, Kara Tippets, the wife of an Evangelical minister, is also reaching out to Maynard, asking her to not commit suicide (Tippets’ letter can be read at aholyexperience.com/2014/10/dear-brittany-why-we-dont-have-to-be-so-afraid-of-dying-suffering-that-we-choose-suicide/). 

Tippets addresses Maynard: “Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known. In your choosing your own death, you are robbing those that love you with such tenderness, the opportunity of meeting you in your last moments and extending you love in your last breaths … one day the story of my young daughter will be made beautiful in her living because she witnessed my dying. That last kiss, that last warm touch, that last breath, matters — but it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed.” 

As anyone who has accompanied a loved one unto death knows, it is not an easy journey, but it is one also marked by many blessings, even as we walk together “through the dark valley” (Psalm 23). 

Tippets continued to Maynard: “Brittany, you have been told a lie. A horrible lie, that your dying will not be beautiful, that the suffering will be too great.

“Today my oncologist and I spoke of your dying, of my dying, and of the beautiful partnership I have with my doctors in carrying me to my last moments with gentle care. For 2,000 years doctors have lived beside the beautiful stream of protecting life and lovingly meeting patients in their dying with grace” [In writing this Tippets is thinking about Christian doctors, who have realized that they are not “gods” playing with people’s lives, but humble servants].

Thinking about the doctor in Oregon, Tippets wrote, “The doctor that prescribed you that pill you carry with you that will hasten your last breath has walked away from the Hippocratic oath that says, ‘First, do no harm.’ He or she has walked away from the oath that has protected life and the beautiful dying we are granted.”

Sometimes the way we Christians address our opponents in the public square pushes them further away from us, so Tippets asked forgiveness. “There are also people who are speaking in ugly tones that make those of us who believe in Jesus seem unsafe, unkind, or unloving. Will you forgive us for the voices that feel like they are screaming at you from a heart that isn’t loving? But in my whispering, pleading, loving voice, dear heart — will you hear my heart ask you, beg you, plead with you — not to take that pill. Yes, your dying will be hard, but it will not be without beauty. Will you please trust me with that truth?”

Tippets then wrote of Jesus’ crucifixion and Resurrection and said to Maynard, “in that overcoming of death He overcame the death you and I are facing in our cancer.  For everyone living knowing death is imminent — that we all will one day face it — the question that is most important [is this]: Who is this Jesus, and what does He have to do with my dying? Please do not take that pill before you ask yourself that question.  I pray my words reach you. I pray they reach the multitudes that are looking at your story and believing the lie that suffering is a mistake, that dying isn’t to be braved, that choosing our death is the courageous story. No — hastening death was never what God intended. But in our dying, He does meet us with His beautiful grace.”

Ashley Maguire took People magazine to task in the New York Post (http://nypost.com/2014/10/24/suicide-flip-flop-peoples-odd-about-face/), seeing a contrast in the way in which it covered Robin Williams’ death earlier this year (it said that he “lost his battle with mental illness”) and is now promoting Maynard’s plans. Maguire asked, “What makes her suicide any different from that of Robin Williams? He faced a terminal diagnosis too, one that involves years of suffering and bodily unraveling, one for which there is no cure. But society’s big mistake is in believing that suicide can be a compassionate or dignified choice. Suicide is suicide. There is nothing that can change that. You can put a beautiful woman on the cover of a celebrity magazine as a spokeswoman. But it’s still suicide, and the reality is that anyone who commits suicide, or even ponders it, is suffering deeply. 

Assisted suicide only compounds the tragedy and the inhumanity of taking one’s life because it makes the law and other people complicit. It inverts our human obligation to help each other avoid death as much as possible, and instead gives people a reason not to reach out to those who are suffering the most in society, usually the elderly, the disabled, those in chronic pain or the terminally ill. Legal suicide gives society a giant cop-out for doing its most basic duty: caring for these people. With euthanasia, we can all just turn the other way while they take their own lives.”

As we remember all the saints tomorrow (November 1) and as we pray for the souls in purgatory throughout the month (please see Father Chris Peschel’s homily on page eight), we pray for Maynard, Tippets, Johnson and all people carrying these huge crosses (be they due to physical illness, mental illness or whatever). We ask God to help us be like Mary, John and Mary Magdalene, accompanying them, even when we’d like to go off and hide. For those who have already died, we pray for their souls and make sacrifices for them. For the living, may we sacrifice our time and comfort so as to love them as Jesus does. 

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts