Tuesday, September 1, 2009

To a Beloved Child of God

In the hope that this message might help even one person who is struggling with pain and terminal illness to choose to live out their life to the last moment and reject the temptation to suicide, the following letter is written from God's perspective, addressed to that one unique, unrepeatable, and valuable person:

Dear One,

You are a child of God, created in His image. Nothing can revoke or remove your inherent dignity. Yes, it is humbling to be helpless, to lose your independence, to need the help of others in your physical distress. But know that you bestow a great gift on your caregivers, who are becoming holier by their service to God, who dwells within you. Remember that Jesus also humbled himself, becoming obedient, even to death on a cross. In your suffering, you are being drawn into that mystery of sacrifice, of redemption, of salvation. You are being drawn closer to Christ. Mother Teresa described what you are going through as a sign that you have come so close to Jesus on the Cross that He can kiss you. This closeness means that you may be pricked by the thorns in His crown or hurt by the nails, but it also gives you the chance to become totally united with Jesus.

Please do not reject the eternal life that Jesus wants to give you. The mystery of suffering may only be fully appreciated when we no longer have the ability to suffer. I heard once that the only two things that make the angels envy us are the Eucharist and suffering. Can you imagine, the angels envy us our ability to suffer with Christ? Reject not the cup which He offers you, it is the cup of salvation – yours, but not yours alone, for the world needs your sacrifice. Offer it for those you love, offer it for the redemption of the world. Reject not the Cross, for it is love. Jesus did not refuse to suffer and die for us, how can we as Christians refuse to suffer with Him?

In your distress, read the Passion accounts in Scripture and ask Jesus to unite your suffering with His. Ask to have the Psalms read to you. Listen to the ancient voices of God’s chosen ones crying out to Him and join your voice to theirs. You are His chosen one, too. God will hear you and comfort you. You are God’s precious child from the moment of your conception to the moment you draw your last breath. Trust in Him. Do not despair, but hope. Be faithful to the very end. Your suffering in this brief life will become the source of your greatest joy in eternity.

Keep your eyes on the Crucified One, and you will be filled with His strength.

True Human Dignity in Life and in Death

         Last November, Washington State became the second in the nation to legalize physician-assisted suicide. This issue affects all of us, especially in these times as we consider what shape health care reform in our country should take. Do we need to protect our “right to die” – or our right to live? The following article is my response to that question, posed by our local newspaper, the Tri-City Herald, in a community conversation in which I participated.


Does it really matter how we describe Initiative 1000? Can’t we agree on a single term, whether it is “death with dignity,” the “right to die,” or “assisted suicide”? Our community conversation at the Tri-City Herald began with this question. We soon acknowledged that our choice of words matters a great deal. Platitudes about “rights” and “dignity” are very appealing, so proponents of the initiative preferred those terms. Opponents opted for the blunt but accurate “physician-assisted suicide.” The word suicide carries negative connotations, so if our goal is to convey the unpleasant reality of what this initiative actually proposes, that term must be used. When someone, whether they are old or young, sick or healthy, takes their own life, it is suicide. Is this the kind of “right” we really want to fight for? Have we as a society so completely lost our collective mind that we are now defending our “right” to choose death by lethal drugs – and do we really want our health care providers to become dealers in death?

Carefully chosen euphemisms can obscure the truth - that a life well lived to its natural end is a beautiful reflection of true human dignity. When my mother died at the age of seventy-five, she seemed old beyond her years. Long years of suffering from multiple illnesses had taken their toll when a final debilitating stroke left her incapacitated, unable to speak, and near death. The family gathered around her, talking to her, offering her sips of water, and coaxing her to eat. She died with my father at her side, holding her hand. For her headstone, my father chose to have an engraving made from a photo taken on their wedding day, when the two first joined hands in a love that would last forever – a photo of their two hands, adorned with wedding bands.

Love is truly all that lasts forever. Pride melts away, replaced by humility, but this does not rob us of dignity. It is part of our preparation for eternal life, where only love remains. It spoke volumes to me to realize the depth of my parents’ love for one another. What message is conveyed to our children if we choose to dispense with a terminally ill loved one rather than offering them the comfort and reassurance they need at their most difficult hour?

Some years later, at the age of eighty-two, my father was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. The tumor caused him great pain when swallowing but because of his age, he was discouraged from seeking aggressive treatment. Finally, he found a doctor who promised that surgery would restore pain-free swallowing. However, complications during the surgery resulted in a difficult recovery. When he was well enough to resume eating, he found it impossible to swallow at all. After a month in a rehab facility with no progress, he was told that he might need feeding tubes the rest of his life and sent home without a glimmer of hope for a normal life. Two more months passed without change, and my father began to wonder if life was worth living. Perhaps if some misguided “angel of mercy” had appeared at that time with a lethal dose of drugs, offering him the “right” to “die with dignity,” my father would be in his grave today. But just one month later, after connecting with the right therapist, he regained his ability to swallow. It was not long before the family celebrated his return to health with a steak dinner at his favorite restaurant.
“It’s on me,” Dad said, “This could have been my funeral.”

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