Spiritual resources in the face of end-of-life suffering

This article was published in the Globe and Mail November 23rd 2011.  To see this story and to read related stories on the Globe and Mail website, please click here.

There are enough people arguing about death in Canada – our right to choose it, our right to involve others to assist, our right to end suffering – that it’s no longer realistic or wise to keep religious views out of end-of-life discussions.

I don’t mean we need clergy at the B.C. Supreme Court, where emotional testimony to legalize assisted suicide is happening. It’s not where they’re wanted.

The court is hearing from 63-year-old Gloria Taylor, a loving grandmother and volunteer with the Kelowna ALS chapter. Since 2006, Ms. Taylor has been slowly slipping away to the perils of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and, according to the court affidavit, “wants to be able to obtain physician-assisted dying services in Canada should she resolve to end her suffering. … She wants the legal right to die peacefully, at the time of her own choosing, in the embrace of her family and friends.”

She wants a death like Kay Carter’s, only in Canada, not Switzerland. The Carter family is also named in the B.C. case. Their mom was 87 when she was diagnosed with spinal stenosis while she was in a care home in North Vancouver, and “reached the firm conclusion that she wished to terminate her life as soon as possible by means of a physician-assisted suicide,” according to the court affidavit.

The affidavit describes how Kay dictated a letter asking the Dignitas clinic in Forch, Switzerland, to perform her assisted suicide, and how Dignitas then requested a letter of support for her decision signed by all seven of Kay’s children. The 2009 death trip with her daughter and son-in-law accompanying her to Switzerland was paid for from Kay’s savings. Now the family wants a court ruling to banish their fear that they could be subject to criminal prosecution for their actions. They also want the option available for their own physician-assisted death.

We’ve had these discussions about death across the generations of our family dinner table, and you’ve probably had them, too. Youth sit wide-eyed while elders pontificate the cold hard facts that death ain’t pretty; no consensus is reached, and the dishes are awkwardly cleared. Faltering as it may be, it’s the beginning of an education that burrows deep into our conscience and asks for more.

It’s what makes you wonder why some choose to end their suffering by suicide, and why many, many more do not. For some, it’s the nagging instinct that Henri Nouwen described when he wrote, “We belonged to God before we were born and we belong to God after we die.” A Dutch-born Catholic priest, he was a popular professor at Yale and Harvard before he left to tend to the disabled at Richmond Hill’s L’Arche.

He articulated what clergy across the country are quietly living out in our national debate about suffering. Clergy help us understand that saying, “Stop, I’ve had enough,” or asking for withdrawal of treatment is not killing, it’s dying. They help you understand that having to choose “do not resuscitate” for a loved one who can’t make the decision on their own is not euthanasia; nor is discontinuing life support or increasing morphine to palliate death.

The public court will struggle with these matters of life and death. But we shouldn’t neglect spiritual resources about how to face suffering and death. Clergy guide us beyond what New Testament scholar N.T. Wright described as “a vague and fuzzy optimism that somehow things may work out in the end” and actually point us to what’s beyond the veil of death and how to get there, and what to do when the journey is too slow. We need them for all our private doubts while this debate rages in our national ethic.

Lorna Dueck hosts Context TV, seen Sundays on Global and Vision TV.

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