Dignity is not the result of circumstances

Whenever I faced a challenge as a boy, my leatherneck dad would say to me: “You can do this standing on your head.” It didn’t matter what “this” happened to be – football tryouts, trigonometry, passing a driver’s test – the response was always the same: “You can do this standing on your head.” If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times.

I spent the last week of my dad’s life in my parents’ home, caring for him and for my mother. A few days before his death from lung cancer, I asked him: “Are you afraid to die?”

He looked me in the eye (I can still remember the eagle-like intensity of his eyes) and said: “I can do this standing on my head.” Of all the times I heard him say it, that’s the one that sticks with me most.

My dad went toe to toe with death. He knew what it would do to him: weaken his body to the point of needing help to do the simplest things; rob him of mental acuity and then of consciousness; and then stop his beating heart. Yet he faced it with courage and poise.

Last week the California Senate followed the State Assembly in passing legislation that legalizes assisted suicide. Governor Jerry Brown will now have to decide whether or not to sign the bill, which allows physicians to help terminally ill patients end their lives.

The bill was inspired and supported by Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old, terminally ill Californian who moved to Oregon in order to legally end her life. Political observers are unsure what action Brown, who attended a Jesuit college, is likely to take.

Nevertheless, the media is calling the California vote a major victory for “right to die” advocates, and around the country lobbyists for “Death with Dignity” legislation have been reenergized. As they see it, every state must enact similar laws in order to provide their citizens assurance of a death with dignity.

Don’t tell me that my dad did not die with dignity. I was there. I saw it.

“Death with Dignity” advocates are compassionate people. They are trying to help, but it seems to me they are operating under a misconception: that to die with dignity means to die in the circumstances of one’s own choosing, and with as little pain as possible. They want people to be able to die before they die; that is, to die before their minds and bodies are ready for death.

I worked for years as a Hospice Spiritual Care Coordinator and during that time I saw, again and again, people go through the hard work of dying. I saw how the very process of dying prepares a person for death. Men and women who were, upon their diagnosis, angry and afraid (and sometimes overwhelmed) were frequently calm and assured and ready to die by the time death arrived. They died with dignity. It was a beautiful thing to see.

Contrary to the claims of some “right to die” proponents, people are not at their most vulnerable when they die. People are most vulnerable when they are afraid. When they are worried they’ll be a burden to their families. When they feel guilty for using their children’s inheritance to pay for medical treatment. And it is then, when they are most vulnerable, that laws like the one passed in California persuade them to end their lives before they’re ready for death.

Dignity is never the result of circumstances, but of character – character that is formed to a significant degree through the process of dying. That process will be interrupted in California as people, either through fear or to avoid burdening their families, hurry to die. One cannot avoid death by hurrying its arrival, but one can miss out on the assurance and peace that untold millions of people have found by going through the process.

Christians ought never hurry death nor fear it. They know that the God who has led and befriended them will continue to do so even, and especially, as death nears. “For,” as the psalmist put it, “this God is our God for ever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 9/19/2015

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