On November 1, 2014 Brittany Maynard, a 29 year old woman with terminal brain cancer took her own life shortly after moving to a state which allowed her to do so legally. She wanted control over precisely when and how her own death would come.
What is “dying with dignity?” Taking this simple statement at face value may have drastically different meaning to you than what Google fetches. Dying with dignity is now coming to be defined by a movement which promotes an individual’s right to control their death on their terms.
What does dying with dignity mean to me? I am a Social Worker for Hospice. I am also a Reformed Christian. My co-workers and I spend much of our time focusing our efforts and discussions on making sure the patients we serve die with dignity. For those with terminal illness or failing 90 year-old organs, dying with dignity can often seem like an unattainable goal. One may easily question why end of life decisions as defined by Brittany Maynard and similar movements of our culture, aren’t justified in redefining the meaning of dying with dignity.
The caregivers for Hospice have a deep desire to help people facing their last days to live their lives with purpose and value. Carrying out a patient’s wishes involves coordinated teamwork. Social workers, nurses, physicians, medical directors, pharmacists, chaplains, music therapists, home health aides, volunteers and many more are called into service with a focused objective to meet all aspects of a patient’s needs, realizing a common goal to help them live out each day with comfort, purpose, peace and joy.
Choosing death on our own terms devalues life. Deafening clarity sounds from the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6; our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and we were bought with a great price; we have no choice but to glorify God with our bodies.
The Body of Christ
Many Hospice patients have an understandable fear of losing control, a fear that things will not be taken care of, a fear that their families will be left with too heavy a burden. In addition to meeting a patient’s needs, a vital role of Hospice is to serve families and friends of the dying, to help lighten the burden, to take away the worries and the work involved with meeting a loved one’s needs as they reach the end of their life. I have witnessed families experience the lightening of this burden allowing them to refocus their efforts in watching over, caring for and just standing beside their loved one. Watching a body of believers providing spiritual and mental support to a dying loved one has been an amazing experience for me. I have seen a true sense of peace come over a patient as they are surrounded with family and friends who know that their needs as well as those of their loved ones are being met. Their melody of sorrow and grief is often accompanied with the harmonies of joy and laughter as they are surrounded by their close friends and family—the body of Christ.
When we choose to arrange our own mortality it casts aside the hope that resounds from the uplifting choir of Christ’s body as we experience life’s sorrows, tears, joys and strengthening bonds. Suffering’s final product is hope (Romans 5:3-5). What more may a suffering soul desire at the end of their life than hope; and what better way to receive it than from the voices and loving fellowship of beloved followers of Christ?
The Power of Miracles
Miracles present themselves in peculiar ways. Our wishes often call for grand displays of miracles, for immediate relief from suffering, for an instant cure. As the Hospice team works to provide end of life value and dignity to patients whose last days have been “marked,” often their fight is prolonged. Their end of life time clock doesn’t quite line up with anything that has been projected. Because God’s plan for their life does not always match ours, patients’ lives are often extended and some are taken off Hospice care entirely. The miraculous power of Our Maker is taking place within their once failing bodies.
Cutting a life short attempts to place limits on the almighty power of God and God’s ability as the Great Physician and worker of miracles. Christ is able to do more than we even think to ask of him. More than our minds can even conjure up. Much, more. Immeasurably more. (Ephesians 3:20)
Sharing the Journey
Watching someone you love suffer in pain as they lose the capacity to eat properly, communicate, walk, play with their children and grandchildren or just carry out seemingly routine activities can create feelings of great sadness. Loved ones walking through this painful season can be strengthened by hope through simple acts of love—sitting nearby grasping a hand, listening to their fears and struggles and keeping their memory alive by sharing their story.
Joining in the journey of someone who is dying is a special experience. Patients who are close to death, especially those whose time on this earth comprised many decades, are some of our greatest life teachers. A carefully tuned ear and receptive heart and mind have helped mold my perspective on what I value most in my life.
Working daily with those who are dying constantly tests my ability to keep providing encouragement and a feeling of purpose. I know that I am a broken sinner, but God has equipped me for service in this area—to make sure those scripting the closing stanzas on their earthly life feel their remaining time is important and has purpose, to help them understand their worth when they feel they are losing all control and hope has vanished.
Control over our earthly mortality let alone our daily calendars is just simply not within our grasp. Surrendering our life and death to Christ and choosing to trust Him fully every day He has in store for us can grant a peace that goes beyond understanding. This is my prayer for all people with pain, with physical ailments and of course my Hospice patients whose remaining days in their earthly bodies may be limited. However, this is also my prayer for myself and those close to me. The life I live in my earthly body is lived by faith in Jesus, who loved me so much he gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).