There was a nursing home close to where I lived in the Netherlands, and I liked to point it out to visitors who were sure the Dutch euthanized their elderly and infirm. Even in the country with the most liberal right-to-die laws in the world, the practice isn’t as common as you might think.
A recent video from the New York Times further illustrates the complexity of the right to die (you can watch the video below). Confronted with the reality of a devastating accident to her own husband, bioethicist Peggy Battin, a leading proponent of the right to die, cannot state what she would do if her husband decided he wanted to end his life. On top of that, the video beautifully illustrates the value, productivity and meaning of his life with severe disabilities.
My own mother is in the process of dying. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, she now has reached the point where she needs to be in a nursing home. She does not know her family, does not know her own story, does not know much of anything anymore.
As a result, the way I pray has changed. I’ve started praying that the end of her life would come sooner rather than later and that it be merciful and grace-filled, with a minimum of suffering. I have horribly mixed feelings about that prayer. I feel guilty saying it. At the same time, I am sure that union with Christ in heaven will be a much, much better existence for her than living in the fog that she lives in now.
There is no place so dark that God’s love cannot reach into it and redeem.
Since I know there is no getting better from what she has, you might wonder if I would consent to having someone slide a needle into her arm and end it all this afternoon.
This isn’t our decision to make.
I don’t believe God has caused her Alzheimer’s. I don’t think she has this disease to teach us something. However, I do recognize there are many things to be learned from this affliction. Among them is this: there is no disease, no problem, no tragedy, no issue, no place so dark that God’s love cannot reach into it and redeem. Rather than avoid suffering, I suggest we look around and embrace the reality that the whole world is afflicted with undeserved suffering. The tragic sense of life is what binds us in solidarity with each other and makes us fully human.
A few months ago I was serving communion; that particular Sunday we were serving by intinction. I watched as people streamed forward to dip the bread into the cup. There was an elderly couple, leaning on each other, and that sight touched me deeply. Behind them was a high-powered businessman, guiding his blind son gently by the elbow. I watched him help his son dip the bread into the cup, and at that moment I saw the cup as the cup of suffering and tried to imagine the unimaginable suffering this family has endured. I then saw it as the cup of salvation and a lump came to my throat as I thought of the words of the old hymn about sorrow and love flowing mingled down.
I believe in Christian hope. Christian hope is not some pabulum, pie-in-the-sky, opiate for the masses. Christian hope is not some sunny “don’t worry be happy” belief that everything is going to be OK. Christian hope is the knowledge that regardless of how things turn out, they have a victorious meaning through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Life and death are both sacred and ultimately God’s business, not ours.
Does it feel more humane to advocate for the right to end life for someone facing a terminal illness? On one level it does, and I can understand those arguments. But on a deeper level, I cannot agree or accept the practice of assisted suicide. I don’t pretend to understand why things happen the way they do, but I feel safe in saying, “Woe to us when we start making God’s decisions for Him.”