Bishop's Column

Dying with dignity

On November 1st last year, a beautiful young woman suffering from aggressive brain cancer passed away in her home in Oregon. Her husband was by her side when she died. As death approached, friends and families surrounded her to say goodbye. Her name was Brittany Maynard and when she died she was 29 years old.

Cancer didn’t kill Brittany Maynard.  Instead, she died from a lethal combination of drugs, prescribed to her by a physician who wanted to help her “die with dignity.”

Brittany Maynard was a spokesperson for America’s “Death with Dignity” movement.  Before her death, she’d written that her disease would eventually overtake her ability to move, or speak, or even to reason.  She wrote that her disease might cause her to suffer in pain for months.  And she wrote of her family, who would be witnesses and caretakers in her decline.  Knowing the consequences of her disease, she wrote, led to her decision that “death with dignity was the best option for me and my family.”

When she died, her supporters called her “courageous” and “heroic.”  They lauded the decision to “die with dignity,” and praised the physician who’d helped her.

I pray for Brittany Maynard’s eternal salvation. And I agree with her sentiments. All of us should die with dignity.

But Brittany Maynard was deceived about what dignity really means. Dignity is not the same as painlessness, or the ability to function, or the freedom from becoming a “burden.”  A dignified death is not one that is free from suffering, or one that absolves family members from compassion in the face of misery.

Brittany Maynard was deceived by a culture that does not understand the meaning of pain, or suffering, or death, because it does not understand the meaning of life itself.   Pope St. John Paul II called this a “culture of death.”

The culture of death believes that life is only meaningful when it is productive, and pleasurable, and painless.  Pope St. John Paul II said that in such a culture, “death…becomes a ‘rightful liberation’ once life is held to be no longer meaningful because it is filled with pain and inexorably doomed to even greater suffering.”

In states across the country, euthanasia and “assisted suicide” have gained serious political support in recent years.  But “assisted suicide” and euthanasia offer no compassion to those who suffer from terminal diseases.  Real compassion would provide companionship, and friendship, and assistance to those suffering in painful situations.  Instead, “Death with Dignity” movements declare that suffering is a burden, and that those who suffer have no place in the human family. 

“Death with Dignity” is a veiled effort to exclude vulnerable people from the family, and the community.  The false compassion of assisted suicide threatens the ill, the elderly, and the disabled, by proclaiming their very lives to be “undignified.”

Real dignity is the consequence of being made in the image of God.  Dignity is part of the gift of God’s divine love.  Dying with dignity means knowing the meaning of life even in the face of death—realizing that we’re made to know, love, and serve God, and to love and serve one another.  Dying with dignity means knowing that our suffering has meaning.  Dying with dignity means dying in the company of those for whom we pray, and those who pray for us.

Lizz Lovett is a young wife and mother living in Oregon, not far from Brittany Maynard’s home.  She has incurable kidney cancer.  She’s likely facing death.  Liz Lovett has heard the Gospel.  She knows what love is.  She knows what dignity is.  In a beautiful video on her life, which can be viewed on our diocesan website, or found on YouTube, Lizz Lovett says that “God has the final word on my life and death, not cancer…. My life is not mine to take, it’s mine to give.  Love is dignity.  I’m facing death with dignity.” 

Lizz Lovett is not afraid to love, or to be loved.  She is not afraid to let others accompany her and care for her.  She is not afraid to suffer. 

“What a lonely, uncharitable and fake world we live in,” she says, “if we think it is somehow undignified to let people see us suffer—to be with us to the end…. Cancer may take my life, but I’m going to live until I die.  That’s dignity.” 

The difference between people who know God’s love and those who believe they must take their lives is us. Those who believe they are a burden are in need of Jesus Christ’s love. The tragic death of Brittany Maynard is a solemn reminder of our call to be evangelists by accompanying others in their suffering.  The culture of death is defeated by an encounter with divine love.  When we proclaim the Gospel, we do so to spare souls from the tragic and violent lies of Satan. We must do so vigorously.

Join me in praying for the soul of Brittany Maynard.  Join me in praying for Lizz Lovett.  Join me in fighting the culture of death.  And join me, brothers and sisters, in proclaiming Jesus Christ—the source of our dignity, the source of our lives, and the source of our hope.

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