Mark Miller, C.Ss.R., Ph.D.
Have you ever sat beside the bed of a loved one who is dying? Many things go through one’s mind at such a time. Have you ever caught yourself praying for the release of death? That is not unusual, even though most of us never talk about such thoughts. Often when we catch ourselves thinking these things, we feel ashamed or guilty, as if we were telling God what to do.
I do not believe that it is wrong, at times, to pray for the death of someone who is dying. Like all our prayer, however, this one must be accompanied by Christ’s, “However not my will but Yours be done!” For the moment of our death is in the hands of God and our prayer, properly spoken like all our requests, is an acknowledgement of that divine dominion.
Still, have you ever asked yourself what it would be like to have the option of ending the life of someone you care deeply about. Suppose you could call in the nurse and say, “That’s enough!” What would you then say? “Please kill her or him?” I suspect that any of us would attempt to soften the deed with phrases like “Get it over with,” or “Just give her/him a shot.” The harshness of killing someone automatically calls forth a demand to make the deed seem less deadly, more innocuous.
But would you even want such a choice? How and when would you make it? Is it not often the case that we seek the death of a loved one because we find the suffering, the journey of com-passion (“walking with the one suffering”) to hard to bear? Our efficiency-trained minds tend to think in terms of getting on with life. There is nothing one can do for the dying person; so we assume that there is no point to the dying process.
Dying, we are often told, is an intensely personal, often lonely experience. A person faces death alone, within one’s own mind and heart. Fear of dying, fear of mortality, and fear of pain are assumed to accompany the loneliness. However, dying is an experience. It is like many other experiences in that it is accompanied by sensations, feelings, thoughts, and surprises. But dying is not an isolated, essentially lonely experience, even though it can be if one so chooses. Dying is a culmination of a lifetime. It is often a time for saying goodbye, for being close to loved ones, or even for renewing one’s humanness through acceptance, reconciliation and thanksgiving. Since the dying person is still living, the dying can itself be shared in many ways. More importantly, however, the dying person continues to share in many ways. Just the presence of another person is a sharing of humanity which is best appreciated when one sees a person who would be alone except for a volunteer or a friend. The bond of humanity, while never more futile in terms of ‘doing something,’ is never stronger in terms of simple, supportive presence.
What would happen, I ask again, if killing someone were an option? Would not our whole attitude toward the dying begin to become part of our efficiency-minded, death-avoiding society? Would not the dying become at best expected to ‘get it over with,’ or at worst pariahs in the land of the healthy? Think for a moment about ‘when’ to give up on the dying, ‘when’ they are ‘ready’ to be pushed over the edge. Think of what that would do to our common human trust and care for one another.
When death is chosen, would we not miss the subtle movements of the human spirit which occur in the face of death: the connectedness, the strength of God in the midst of human weakness and impotence, the opportunities for reconciliation and for the attainment of peace for one’s soul? To play God does not mean simply that we would be usurping God’s authority. No, I believe it would mean that we have a better way, that grace is no longer a possibility, that the beauty of the human spirit is suddenly and arbitrarily limited. I believe that our fears would displace our trust.
And let us not confuse assisted suicide as somehow nothing more than an assistance to an already-rational option by a competent individual. Think for a moment again of ‘when’ such an option should be chosen. Is it when you have had enough? Or when you sense that your friends and family have had enough? Or when the process seems to be lasting too long? Or when? It is obvious that people would not have trouble making the choice. But if the why and the when do not haunt them, then there must be some clear grounds. Who will reveal them? “I want” is an answer, but it is not a reason.