A Good Death

I flew home to be with my mother and sisters after a terrible phone call announced that my frail papa had suffered a fall with fractured ribs and a heart attack. The call came on Friday and I was in another world on Monday, leaving Europe behind to return to South Texas. I went from my job of international pro-life coordination for Human Life International (HLI) to an excruciatingly hands-on practicum in end of life care and accompaniment.
We are not a typical family. Dad was a PhD in philosophy and mom is an medical doctor. My adopted sister, Anne-Sophie is a religious whose ministry focuses on the defense of life, particularly, the terminally ill. She has supported families and their dying loved ones for over 25 years. Our Catholic faith is a profound and central reality for us. Decades of leadership in and generosity to the Church, going back several generations, afford us an abundance of priest and religious friends. We are without doubt richly blessed and much better prepared for this journey than most.
My mother and sisters were all convinced that this would be his final illness. Dad in fact passed into eternal life a week after I arrived.
In caring for him and experiencing his funeral and burial, I learned many valuable pro-life lessons. For several years now, I have worked against euthanasia for HLI, particularly in Europe. My sister Anne Sophie is literally on the front lines providing spiritual care to the elderly and dying. She has experienced numerous cases of “illegal” or “undeclared” but nonetheless real euthanasia in both hospital and hospice settings.
What struck me the most was the incredible difference between a good Catholic death and being put to sleep by euthanasia. My father’s final illness and funeral were a celebration of faith and hope, albeit one filled with many aching tears. Caregivers, friends and family members were deeply touched. Dad suffered and groaned from his broken ribs when we agonizingly had to turn him on his side to change him. Mainly, however, he affirmed, “I am doing fine” when he manifestly was not. He edified us by his lack of anger or rebellion towards God in the face of swiftly approaching death, which would be a natural reaction and stage on the way to acceptance. Many people made sacrifices, especially the closest family members, who kept up a 24-hour vigil at his bedside for almost two weeks.
All this pain and sacrifice was lovingly accepted and transformed into something beautiful. It was not the meaningless suffering of an animal or of a person who has no hope beyond this life and this world. I realized as I had not before, that in order to embrace euthanasia or assisted suicide most persons must well and truly fall into despair. They have to be convinced that it is meaningless and cruel to be forced to endure suffering when a hastened death would painlessly and quickly resolve the problem.
Clearly, there are low and mean reasons to support euthanasia. The bean counters would like to save on health care costs, which certainly skyrocket in the last 6 months of the typical modern life. Greedy family members want to receive their inheritances faster and do not want to see the money spent on nursing or other “useless” expenses. Some simply see no reason why, for example, a homeless person should receive advanced and expensive medical care since they do not believe the poor have the exact same dignity and rights.
Somehow worse, however, are the “higher” more “noble” reasons for euthanasia. False compassion in these cases is more repugnant to me than mere greed. This morbid mercy destroys the most important moment in each of our lives, the hour of our death. This decisive time when so many deathbed conversions have turned tragedy into a last-second victory is poisoned. The very last act of the person is to turn away from God and His mercy, and this is done by the hands of medical workers who should be guardians of human life. It is a horror that brings no peace; only the empty silence of everlasting death.
The deepest root of the problem is materialism. Euthanasia advocates have no final hope; only a quiet despair. Some of these individuals are filled with pride or fear and want to control the moment of their death, to own it. Somehow, by ending their lives prematurely they think it will have a kind of pagan dignity modeled on the Ancient Roman suicides or the Samurai’s ritual seppuku.
There is a special Christian humility in acknowledging that God is in control and not us. Control is not only usually an illusion but also a temptation. The diabolical path is to prefer our will to God’s. Peace and serenity come from enduring and hoping, not running away from death by precipitating it. To offer up one’s suffering is ennobling not destructive of human dignity, as the death peddlers argue. Making sacrifices for loved ones and yes, being a burden for others, are paths to sanctity if rightly lived.
Now, there are holy and unholy burdens. The former are simply inevitable given our current situation. People grow old and sick naturally, and accidents happen. Other burdens stem from sin. Sometimes carrying these burdens can actually be co-dependency and unhealthy.
Discernment is needed as to which burdens we should bear and what trials are truly not our responsibility or even beyond our capacity to bear.
I gave a talk in Belgium recently comparing my father’s death to the typical euthanasia termination of life. The differences are most remarkable in the legacy left behind. I do not feel guilty for my dad’s death, and I am awed by his courage until the end. He did not take a shortcut or easy way out, and neither did we. That translates into peace and joy rather than regret and unease. My father went into eternal life in God’s time, not man’s. He was not treated as a burden afflicted with pointless suffering that should be terminated. We treasured his life as something precious, but we also avoided the opposite idolatry of prolonging life by any means. The pursuit of overzealous and even despairing and burdensome treatment is the mirror opposite mistake of euthanasia.
Really, it is frightening how much confusion reigns today. Euthanize your dog or cat who face meaningless pain or whose treatment would be too costly, certainly, but not your grandmother! The blindness that does not see why we treat a pet and a human being differently is the modern darkness crying out for God’s merciful touch and light.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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