As Loved Ones Die (1)

In this and the following two columns, I would like to share some thoughts on what is perhaps the most poignant and difficult experience in human relationships: the dying of someone we deeply love. These are not explorations of the mystery of death. Rather, they are attempts, fumbling but earnest, to think about the process of dying and our most appropriate response to it, from both a medical and a spiritual point of view. I realize these reflections will be offensive to some, simply because of the questions I raise, questions often thought—at least by Orthodox Christians—to verge on the “unthinkable,” questions that might seem to offend our moral conscience. My purpose is not to provoke, and certainly not to scandalize. It is merely to set before readers a bit of the reality all of us are faced with, and to ask how we can best—that is, most compassionately and most faithfully—respond to it.

What follows here is intended to open the question from a very personal perspective. These are notes, originally handwritten, jotted down some twenty-five years ago by my mother, who now is approaching ever more rapidly her own death and the process that leads to it. Names have been changed for obvious reasons, and a few lines have been left out. It remains, however, basically as I received it. It is dated “July, ‘83.”

When I go to see Helen, I am so heart broken that it leaves me shaken for the rest of the day. On that awful Tuesday when she had the stroke, she lay there on her bed and wished—and probably prayed—that she would die.

It was not to be. Patty understood this, as did I. The others, more conventional, were determined that she go to the hospital. Knowing how she felt, I asked her if she wanted to go. ‘No!’ she insisted. Then I said I would not do anything more.

But the doctor and others took her away. Very possibly she would not have died. Only suffered on and on for who knows how long.

What will be her fate? Nothing good: dependence, the thing she hated most. And what is happening to that splendid mind?

People should be able to choose how to die—and when. The most cruel thing in life is to be forced to live on when one wishes no longer to cope with ever-increasing problems.

Mother died when her life got too complicated. Her eye problems were foremost, then there was the house, big [problems in the family], worry over [a dependent daughter], and so on. She was more fortunate than Daddy. It took him three months of misery in the hospital, only ten days for her.

Ellen died slowly of cancer, as did Miriam. Louise suffered, her poor face paralyzed on one side with a horrid, staring eye. Carolyn’s throat closed, bit by bit. Judy was in and out of the hospital with pain and racking nausea. Joan’s body became huge and swollen and agonizing -

This should not be. We have let the medical profession play with us with their experiments and they never know for sure just what will happen. Without chemotherapy, Louise probably would not have lived through such agonizing pain, nor would Judy. Carolyn, if allowed to die, would not slowly have suffocated.

No one claims life is fair—but death should be.

Nothing promises that death, any more than life, will be fair. Yet I can only feel the greatest sympathy with the passionate desire these simple words express. When close friends and beloved relatives endure a “sickness unto death,” we suffer with them. In acute cases, their pain and anguish become iconic. They image the agony of the Cross, the apparent absurdity and obscene injustice of innocent suffering. In the face of it, all we can do is to reassure ourselves of what is essential. If, as Pascal declared, “Christ is in agony until the end of the world,” it means that a promise is more important than an explanation, that where explanations are impossible, a promise offers hope. If the innocent suffer, we may not be able to explain the reason why. But we can know to the depths of our being that the crucified Lord bears that suffering with us and does so to the very end.

Yet when someone we deeply love is bearing that suffering, especially in the last days of their life, the questions and the doubts remain. There is no shame in this, and no one who has not shared the experience should judge it as a weakness of faith. To grieve is to question, and also to doubt. This is as normal as breathing, and perhaps just as necessary.

So we will continue to ruminate on these things in the next two columns. Again, the aim is not to provoke or to trouble the sensibilities of those who feel that we should simply accept the Gospel promise with unquestioning belief and conviction. Rather, it is to ask with all those who are presently accompanying a dying loved one just how we can most compassionately, faithfully and lovingly seek for that beloved person a death that is not necessarily “fair,” but is rather “painless, blameless and peaceful,” leading to a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ.