I’ve been seeing status updates like the one below floating around social media by those claiming to be apart of the religious community.
As someone who considers himself a part of the faith community, I’m going to hope that this type of rhetoric represents a fringe opinion of a small segment of the faith community that (unfortunately) would rather extend judgment than grace and is more satisfied in self-righteousness than empathy and compassion. And while I’d be presumptuous to assume that the majority within the faith community AGREE with Brittany’s decision, I AM going to assume that the majority of the faith community have NOT looked upon Brittany Maynard and deemed her a “coward”. My hope is that the majority have attempted to understand her situation and have embraced the tension that “death with dignity” may place upon your faith system.
I know the tension. We want to respect the traditions of our faith and the held certainties of our scripture and yet we also — to some degree or another — want to extend compassion, understanding and mercy. This is the tension of the faith community: we have one foot planted in tradition and another foot planted in the present.
Is Choosing “Death with Dignity” Actually Suicide?
Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, a Vatican official and head of the Pontifical Academy for Life condemned the death of Maynard, calling her death “an absurdity.”
“This woman [took her own life] thinking she would die with dignity, but this is the error ….
Suicide is not a good thing. It is a bad thing because it is saying no to life and to everything it means with respect to our mission in the world and towards those around us …
Brittany Maynard’s gesture is in itself to be condemned, but what happened in her conscience is not for us to know.”
The assumption that Brittany Maynard and those who would choose “Death with Dignity” are committing suicide and saying “no to life” isn’t as bullet proof as we’d like to think. It’s important to remember that — by law — those who choose “death with dignity” (such as Maynard) must have two medical doctors confirm that the patient is indeed terminal and will die within six months.
Unlike suicide, the terminal patient isn’t making a choice between death and life, it’s a choice between two kinds of death. Ethan Remmel PH.D wrote about his terminal illness for Psychology Today back in 2011. He writes:
“I have received some feedback on my thoughts about the Death with Dignity Act. As I said, I have not decided whether to use this option, but I feel strongly that it should be legally available to mentally competent and terminally ill people such as myself. As I also said, I do not view it as “suicide” (although that is a convenient term), because I would not really be choosing between living and dying. I would be choosing between different ways of dying. If someone wishes to deny me that choice, it sounds to me like they are saying: I am willing to risk that your death will not be slow and painful. Well, thanks a lot, that’s brave of you.”
Perhaps Richard Drew’s “The Falling Man”, a picture of a man who jumped from the World Trade Center on 9/11 drives home Remmel’s point:
Is “The God Argument” Really Helpful?
Another element – and a VERY strong element – is the belief that God and ONLY God should choose when a person dies.
I can understand the passion that resides in the hearts of believers. And while the God element is the center of the believer’s life — we need to understand that – on a national and state level — this discussion is not being held in a church forum, it’s being held in a public sphere. And so the “let God decide when we die” arguments wouldn’t work outside the walls of our houses of worship. If you are a believer and you disagree with “death with dignity”, it’s certainly okay to voice your opinion — in fact you should — but realize this America isn’t the America of a couple decades ago and “the God argument” won’t suffice.
Furthermore, the conversation is simply too complex for the “let God decide when we die” answer. With modern technology, the situation is often the case that humans do indeed have some say in the matter. Whether it be passive euthanasia, like taking off life support and forms of palliative care (i.e. hospice), we often have to make the decision whether or not to continue to pursue medical support.
In fact, now more than any other time in human history, humans are presented with this choice: Do we want quality of life or quantity of life? Do we want to extend life through artificial means, or do we forego medical aid and die on our own terms? We are being asked to make decisions that were previously “left up to God.” We are, as we grow and expand our knowledge of the human body, determining more and more of our fate. And as medicine has created “miracle” after “miracle” there has to be a point when we say, “I’m tired of the miracles. I’m ready to die.”
When the Faith Community Embraces End-of-Life Care
When community is at the center of death, the end stage of life becomes not an embarrassment of dependence, but a beautiful display of love … a time when the community shines forth its compassion, care and giving. When you have good community and you’re terminal, there are few things that display the beauty of community more than the end stage of life.
I‘ve seen it and let me say that while death is always somehow painful (even for those who choose “death with dignity”), it’s not always ugly. There’s few things that move me more than seeing the loving care of a family who have utterly surrounded their loved one in both the dying and in the death.
So here’s my main point: the “good death” isn’t ultimately defined by one’s lack of pain, but by one’s family and friends … or by one’s faith community. The good, terminal sickness is defined by having family over 24/7, sharing the experience, sharing your words of love through actions.
And actions — our orthopraxy — is where the faith community has something to say in the end-of-life discussion. In a time when we major on apologetics and words of orthodoxy, it’s important to remember that “I was sick and you looked after me” is the call of believers. When the aged are becoming the marginalized of society, being sent away to nursing homes and retirement communities where they can be hidden from the rest of us; when the sick are sent to cold, sterile hospitals; it does us well to remember that whether or not we agree with Brittany’s decision, it’s our mandate to speak words with our actions by providing love, gifts and — perhaps most importantly — community for the sick and dying.
This week my blog is being taken over by Jessica Charles. This from Jessica: I am Corporal Joshua Alexander Harton’s Big Sister. I am his sister and I protected him his whole life. That is until September 18th, 2010 when a bullet from Taliban’s rifle went through his neck, cutting his carotid artery, moving through his torso and destroying organs and finally leaving his body at the left hip and shattering his Kevlar armor. I am Josh’s sister and I need you to know that my little brother is dead and my epic life will never be the same again.
I watch my daughter throw her body down on the floor. She lifts her head to scream and then pounds her hands and feet on the ground. It is a classic tantrum performance. And though she does this act with such precision that I can’t help but want to laugh, I do not. I do not laugh because my daughter is in pain and need and she has no other way of telling me.
I ask her if she is hungry-shakes head no, is she thirsty-shakes head no, does she need to be cuddled-YES.
It seems silly. A cliche event in the life of motherhood but there you have it; a child communicating that she needs help. She doesn’t do it with grace or dignity. She is unabashed at her discomfort with the world and will make sure we all know it. She knows no shame in being upset or sad or uncomfortable. She only knows that IF she shows you she feels bad you WILL help her to feel better.
What a remarkable idea. Telling one another that we feel pain, discomfort and even anguish with the expectation that telling someone will get us HELP.
My brother’s name is Joshua. There are many Hebrew translations of his name but my favorite is “A crying out to G-d”. It is also translated as “Salvation”. The reason for two seemingly dissimilar meanings is clear if you have studied Hebrew (which I have). In Hebrew, often a word means one thing AND its response, or its understood that if in context something is asked it is ALSO replied to. For example, the word SHEMA means “Listen, Hear and Obey” as in “If you were listening to me, you would have heard and then obeyed”. In this way, “A crying out to G-d means that G-d will answer and you will be given Salvation”. Remarkable huh?
My brother did not cry out. Not in his life or at the time of his death. He made his own salvation. He did not like to ask for help but was happy to offer it. When he did ask it was of a very few. Josh would not ask for help unless he thought it was something you could give. I admire that but at the same time, I wonder how much more we could have helped one another if we only knew where to begin.
Before he deployed, I told my brother some things about our childhood. Details he was not previously aware of and they seemed to bring him peace. I wish I had known sooner and been able to tell him. I wish I could have told him how much I relied on him to get through a day, just knowing with him in this world I was never really alone.
Now Josh is gone and I have learned a hard lesson in an uneasy way. I need help, I need it almost daily. I go to therapy and I take medications and I read the books assigned by my doctor but in the end and I mean up until MY very end: I will not get over my brother’s death. I can’t. And that will leave me with a difficult life filled with painful moments, moments which can only be eased if I tell you that I hurt and you give me your aid. I am in mourning which has no end date.
If when I am in pain, if it seems the world is caving in on all sides and I want to throw myself on the ground to scream and hit and kick, don’t laugh, don’t run, but instead, give a little help. Because I get by with a little help from my friends.
Four months after Newtown, People magazine has published a series called, “Life After Newtown Shootings” where the parents describe their grief and how they are coping. It’s a beautiful series and well-worth your time and the three dollar Kleenex box that you’ll go through.
One of the parents mentions that she still sleeps with her son’s pajamas so that she can be soothed by “his smell.” Certainly, considering the tragedy of Newtown, there is nothing abnormal about her practice. In fact, it’s healthy and I can’t help but feel the heaviness of her grief as I think about it.
Here’s a question: A what point has her son’s smell disappeared and what she thinks is her son’s smell is actually her own smell. At what point in sleeping with his pajamas have they stopped smelling like her son and started to smell like her?
At funerals, you’ll often hear people say, “Cathy lives on in all of our memories” or, “Cathy will never die as longs as we remember her.”
There’s a difficulty that comes with remembering our loved one.
I remember an old man, who was married to his late wife for over 50 years, stopped into funeral home to pay his bill and he said, “I both grieve the loss of my wife and the distortion of my memories of her. Even now, when I remember her, I ask myself, “Is this memory real or is it my mind’s adaptation of her? I only want to remember the good, but I miss the bad and messy nearly as much because it’s who she was.”
There’s a time when the smell on the pajamas becomes our own. There’s a time when memories are distorted by our desires for comfort. But, this is why we must grieve in community … so that community can help us piece together the real.
Grief must take place in community! We have to share, we have to be vulnerable with our friends and family.
Share at your family dinners … over the holidays.
Be brave an ask your parents old friends about mom/dad. Ask your child’s friends … your spouse’s co-workers.
Have people write down their memories.
Talk. Talk. Talk. Talk about your deceased loved one. Don’t let the memories die. Don’t let them become distorted.
Over the past couple months, I’ve been contemplating why the West (America, Europe, etc.) has so much aversion to death, while other — less “developed — cultures see death as less alien. I’ve come up with two major reasons:
Our modern world takes death care away from families and puts it in the hands of “professionals”, thus industrializing death. Instead of the dying dwelling at our homes, we give them to nursing homes. For more of my thoughts on this, here’s an article I wrote.
The modern world also likes providing answers to life’s questions. So when death comes with its silence and mystery, we are rendered uncomfortable.
Two. We lack ritual. There’s three reasons why there’s a lack of ritual:
1.) We tend to be individualistic, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it produces a lack of community.
2). We tend to dislike tradition.
3.) We are becoming post-religious.
The following is my (rather poor) attempt to explain why the lack of ritual increases our aversion to death.
Muscle memory is what separates the professionals from the amateurs.
Muscle memory is what enables musicians to thoughtlessly play complicated music with near perfection.
Muscle memory is the product of laborious habit that makes incredibly difficult tasks seem like minutia.
I just came back from indoor rock climbing.
I’ve seen athletic and strong newbies come to the gym and they look like fools trying to climb routes. Falling down on their bums, scraping their arms up and getting all nervous when they get to the top of the route.
Climbing is both strength and technique muscle memory. And while newbies may be strong and athletic, if they don’t know how to move their bodies on the wall, they’re destined to fall and fail.
Grief is similar. The walls of bereavement are very intimidating to even the spiritually and psychologically strong. It doesn’t matter how whole you are, you will fall and you will fail.
Unless you enter through the trodden paths of ritual.
The muscle memory of grief is ritual. Ritual allows us to take the incredibly difficult task of mourning and find a way to persevere, even when it seems we shouldn’t.
Muscle memory is usually something you or I create through practice. I climb routes at the climbing gym, my muscles get used to moving a certain way.
You practice the guitar day in and day out and your fingers move like jazz.
This is where the whole muscle memory analogy starts to fall apart when we relate it to grief.
While a professional’s muscle memory is something he or she created, death ritual muscle memory is something our community has created and it can only be “learned” within community.
You didn’t create it. It’s something we inherit … or something we can join.
This from Alla Bozarth in “Life Is Goodbye, Life is Hello: Grieving Well Through All Kinds of Loss”:
Funerals are the rituals we create to help us face the reality of death, to give us a way of expressing our response to that reality with other persons, and to protect us from the full impact of the meaning of death for ourselves.
The problem is this: so many of us have disconnected ourselves from community, tradition and a religion that we’ve never received the graces of grief ritual.
If we have community in place,
if we embrace tradition in times of death
and we’re willing to involve the motion and movement of religion,
we may find life and meaning in a task that many onlookers see as insurmountable.
Ritual doesn’t allow you to overcome grief (grief may never be overcome). It doesn’t allow you to work through your grief faster. Nor does make death more tolerable. And it certainly won’t make you a “professional.”
Ritual allows you to confront a seemingly impossible task in the context of community.
Why is the West so adverse to death? Because devoid of ritual, confronting death is like asking me to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23.
… and I took a picture of it.
There’s only two white guys in this picture: the one is the white pastor who is sitting beside the soundboard. The other is the white Jesus engraved in the stain glass. The rest are African American.
There’s a white Jesus in stained glass because this is a white church, that has had 30 plus pastors in it’s history, all of whom have been white.
And today the church is full of African Americans in a white church for a funeral.
The Mt. Zion AME church is in the process of being renovated. And this week the Mt. Zion AME church lost not one but two of their members.
The Parkesburg United Methodist Church opened their doors, their sanctuary and their cafeteria hall for not one, but both funerals.
African Americans in a white church where the white pastor isn’t in the pulpit, but serving the black female pastor in the pulpit by running the soundboard. In fact, he was serving since 8 AM in the morning when he helped carry the casket up the two flight of steps and into the sanctuary; when he vacuumed the entire sanctuary at 9 AM; extended gracious hospitality from 10 AM to 11 AM; and even organized five members of the auxiliary crew to set up plates and places for 100 plus people for the post funeral luncheon in the cafeteria hall.
This is how unity is supposed to work.
One hundred years ago, this wouldn’t have happened. Fifty years ago … maybe even 10 years ago this wouldn’t have been considered. But today I witnessed it. I witnessed the body of Christ.