Jesus teaches that when the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it produces fruit. We often interpret that as dying to our false selves in this life, and I do believe that is a valid interpretation. However, as with many of Jesus’ teachings, it can go so much deeper, especially in combination with another statement in this periscope: “Whoever loves his life will lose it.” In this context, perhaps there are profound implications not only for how we live, but for how we die, a topic we are apt to avoid in our society. What if, as Cardinal Bernardin wrote in “The Gift of Peace”, death is not the enemy to be fought at all costs, but a friend that, like our lives, can also produce fruit?
Most people are not as afraid of death itself as they are afraid of dying, especially dying in pain. Family members who watch loved ones suffer at the end of their lives talk about it as a nightmare experience. The fear and negative situations have resulted in many states (and I believe eventually it will be all states) passing laws allowing assisted suicide. By definition, assisted suicide occurs when an “assistant” provides the means for ill or suffering persons to take their own lives – lethal medications, gun/ammunition, carbon monoxide hood, etc. – but the assistant does not participate in the act itself. The ill person chooses the time, place, and circumstances of their death, rather than allowing the dying process to proceed naturally.
The Catholic Church condemns assisted suicide, teaching instead that we need to alleviate end-of-life suffering by utilizing effective pain relief, employing hospice and palliative medications early in the process, and ensuring every patient has proper, compassionate care. Church documents say we must work diligently to achieve the more complicated task of alleviating the suffering of dying people, which is the ultimate goal of hospice services, rather than ending the suffering by killing the patient. Death should rightly occur because of disease, illness, or injury, not by human actions.
Yet the Church also clearly teaches that this does not mean we are morally bound to use every means known to humankind to keep our bodies alive until our bodies simply can’t take it anymore. Life is not the ultimate good. God created us as finite beings and death is a normal, natural, expected occurrence. We are not supposed to be here forever, and God has something better in store. At some point, it is time to let go of life, to die and go home.
Recognizing this fact, in document after document the Church calls for “acceptance in the face of death”, and weighing the potential burdens and costs of treatment against the potential benefits it could offer. It is morally and ethically OK to stop or refuse treatments that only serve to prolong dying or that cause increased pain and suffering in the dying process.
For instance, my brother is in an intense 6-month round of chemotherapy to treat his brain cancer, and says he understands as he never did before how a patient could reach a point where they decide to refuse further treatment. It saps so much energy, cognition, and life out of him that if his life becomes an endless cycle of chemo, it would not be worth it and he’ll stop. He believes continuing in that circumstance would prolong the dying process complete with painful, debilitating side effects, and he would choose instead to maximize the quality of whatever life remains. This is not assisted suicide. In line with Church teaching, his death would occur naturally, caused by the underlying disease, and foregoing further treatments would allow him to more fully enjoy his final days on earth surrounded by supportive family and friends.
Jim is not anywhere near that decision yet, but it’s clear he is thinking ahead. It’s very hard to hear him talk this way, because I love him and do not want him to die. As Jesus says, though, he is called to cling to nothing, not even life itself. And I am called not to cling to my beloved brother. While I would never participate in any action aimed at proactively causing his death, I also need to let go of my desire to have him on this earth beyond the time when his body is ready to empty itself and free his soul to return to the Source of love that created him. Standing in the way would be self-serving and actually detrimental to Jim. When the time comes, I, too, need to find “acceptance in the face of death.”
As a society and as a community of faith, instead of viewing death as the ultimate evil, as something that must be fought with every ounce of strength until the last moment, perhaps we can get better at accepting death with faith, dignity, and grace. Perhaps we can better utilize the benefits of hospice and palliative care for weeks or months instead of hours or days before death, enabling our loved ones to live with more comfort and quality of life and to be more present to us as they die. Perhaps we can thus help our loved ones achieve the goals they long for – whether reconciling with someone, tying up loose ends, or having time to properly say goodbye. Perhaps ultimately, by the way we die, we can be a visible sign to the world that we are part of something bigger, that this life is not the ultimate good, and that we can sink into the river of God’s peace and love as we take our last breath. And what a witness that would be!
I pray that not only my life but my death might produce much fruit and be a source of inspiration and hope to others. I pray for myself and for Jim, that we may each realize when the fight becomes futile and have the strength to stop, living fully whatever days remain and then going peacefully into the arms of God. I pray for you, too, that whether we live or we die, we may all be instruments of Christ.
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.corgenius.com/.