In a recent Reflection (Feb 19, 2017), I characterized four common attitudes about death as those of “the secular, the scientist, the suicide, and the saint.” I now wish to suggest that the proposals of the suicide are, in large measure, wrongheaded responses to real problems caused by the prevailing secular and scientific attitudes in our society. The right response to those problems is, of course, that of the saint.
Consider the following:
Death was not an end result Eddie’s doctors discussed or I planned for. There were numerous discussions with social workers and discharge planners about preparation for Eddie coming home, but never once was there a discussion about the very real possibility that he could actually die.
Eddie told every doctor who examined him that he knew that he was dying, and that he wanted to be allowed to return to his favorite place on earth – his home – to die peacefully with his wife and four dachshunds by his side.
As he was wheeled into surgery, the vascular surgeon, who knew Eddie well, stated, ‘I will see you walking into my clinic three months from now on your prosthesis as if nothing had happened.’ Twelve hours later, Eddie was dead.
I was not by my husband’s side when he died, as we had planned. Instead, he died alone, surrounded by machines.
These are excerpts from the testimony of a woman who is unhappy about the way her husband died and frustrated with the medical culture that, as she sees it, prevented her husband from dying in the way he wished. I found her story on www.deathwithdignity.org, the website of the Death with Dignity National Center, a nonprofit that defends and promotes what it calls, “physician-assisted dying.”
I think this woman’s story bears articulate witness to real problems in our health care system and in our society. We are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the reality of death, even when a person’s death is an imminent likelihood. We are so determined to prevent death that we try every possible life-saving treatment and do not stop trying until it is too late for the dying person and his family to prepare for the kind of death they would have wished for.
These problems are characteristic of our secular and scientific society. We cannot or will not acknowledge death because, according to our secular worldview, it leads to nothing meaningful. We think and speak only about our life in this world because, whether theoretically or practically, we do not consider the life of the world to come to be real or to have real value. We are single-mindedly determined to prevent death because, according to our scientific worldview, science and technology should provide solutions to every problem. When they don’t, we perceive it as a failure: not only a failure for the dying person, but for science and for our worldview – failures we strive to avoid at any cost.
The woman whose story is posted on deathwithdignity.org rightly identifies problems with the ways our secular and scientific society treats, and fails to treat, dying people. Death is a reality that should be acknowledged and prepared for. Death is not something to be prevented at any cost, but to be accepted and welcomed when the costs of life-sustaining treatments have ceased being reasonable.
Nevertheless, this woman wrongly concludes that the answer to these problems is passing “choice laws . . . that embrace the final wishes of the terminally ill to die on their own terms,” when those terms presumably include “physician-assisted dying.” She is right that we should stop ignoring death and trying to prevent it at any cost. She is wrong to think the way to do that is to plan the ideal settings for our suicides.
The better answer is the saintly answer. Rather than trying to describe it, I will ask you to consider a few testimonies from www.judysbook.com about Rosary Hill Home, a facility for terminally ill cancer patients run by Dominican sisters in Hawthorne, NY:
The sisters and staff are like angels on earth. Words can never express the love my brother or our family received during the last few months of his life. God bless Rosary Hill sisters and staff.
The good Dominican nuns provide one on one spiritual and physical assistance to patients . . . What a blessed place!
My brother-in-law received the best possible care [at Rosary Hill] . . . beyond clean, beyond caring staff, beyond allowing the patients to retain their dignity. We were fortunate to have their blessed assistance.