Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Denying Death Any Dignity. . .

So far this year my family and I have dealt with the serious illness of one parent and the decision that full-time nursing care can no longer be avoided.  It is never a pleasant duty to dwell on the things that are not as you hope or desire but neither can it be avoided.  While I am a firm advocate of making the move to institutional care a final choice instead of a first one, there are times when no amount of family care can supply what a loved one needs.  As one who visits those of my parish within the nursing homes of my community, I can attest to both the reality of the need and the desire to postpone this choice as long as possible.

In addition we have prayed for one to be removed from life support and therefore the extraordinary mechanical means of sustaining life to his body.  It is never a pleasant duty for a family to get to that point where such a choice must needs be made.  Yet the alternative is not a salutary option, either.  My wife the nurse has many thoughts about those who refuse to end any medical treatment to the elderly who must rely upon mechanical means to sustain life to their bodies but who are no longer awake or mentally alert to what goes on around them.

While there is a constant pursuit of life for those who refuse to relinquish it, this is just as much an indignity as those who would hasten to steal away what death has not yet claimed.   In a culture that prolongs life and denies death by just about any means necessary (chemical, surgical, and pharmaceutical), we find ourselves surrendering any dignity of death instead of preserving life.  Previous ages, without the medical technology to sustain the bodily functions without sustaining life, learned better than we how to afford death some measure of dignity that seems to have escaped us today.

On the one hand I have been part of the struggle against those who would literally over medicate with painkillers those not in pain but clearly at the end of their lives.  Some would define hospice as more the hastening of death than the gentle care of the dying.  There is no dignity in smothering life with the medicines supposedly designed to relieve suffering but with the side effect of ending that life.  As a Pastor I have been blessed to see families resist this overuse of painkillers and to allow a small measure of suffering that offers also the benefit of being alert and aware of the family presence and the opportunity to live out the last moments of life instead of merely waiting for death.

On the other hand I have also attempted to minister to those who refused death, who denied its inevitability, and who insisted that another treatment, drug, or option be tried -- even when the patient was comatose.  In one case I recall a man in his 90s whose life came to a tortuous end because the family insisted that everything be done and refused every entreaty from pastoral or medical sources to provide palliative care only.  There is no dignity in hastening death but neither is there any dignity in increasing the suffering of the dying by attempting to prevent their death at all costs.

Our modern technology and our youth oriented culture have made death more difficult for us as a people -- even Christian folks.  In the end, we have left ourselves devoid of any dignity at the end of life -- either by our quickness to discard life as a burden too great for the living to bear or by our refusal to believe that all men living are but mortal.  I would never suggest that previous eras were better at medicine but sometimes I wonder if they were not better at matters of life and death.  They knew suffering in life and they knew the suffering of death.  It is not that they were resigned to it but neither were they consumed by it or the fear of suffering (as we seem to be today).  They understood better than we that medicine is best when it does no harm (neither the harm of death hastened nor of the harm of life uncharitably sustained only because we can).

Perhaps this is one reason why we have surrendered so much dignity to the circus ring of the funeral home and its celebration of life.  There is one thing that those who wish to hasten death and those who wish to preserve life at all costs can agree upon -- pain is the worst thing of all.  So it is no wonder that we would continue our refusal of death by focusing instead upon life and consoling ourselves that quality is better than quantity or that we did everything we could to keep mom or dad alive.  Surrounded by the familiar of sports memorabilia or symbols of our hobbies and favorites, the job of the funeral home and clergy is to keep up the mask by focusing on that which distracts us from actually confronting and considering death.

We would do well to talk more about death and suffering and not wait until the subjects can no longer be avoided.  A life insulated from such honest conversation is a weak and fragile life -- nothing like the lives we have in Christ where we are made strong enough to confront death and to rejoice in the life that Christ has given and death cannot overcome.

Just a few rambling thoughts near the start of a new year. . . that will probably look much like the old one. . . at least when it comes to the subject of life and death. . .


Unknown said...

Pastor Peters:

My wife, Gwen, died January 27, 2014 at 1:01 pm in our home with as much peace and dignity as we could provide. God, family members, friends, and clergy were present for her passing into Jesus' loving arms.
She had no pain (due to small quantities of morphine), and she was aware, although unable to respond, of the presence and love that surrounded her.
Gwen asked that she die at home, which we were able to do. Gwen asked that no extraordinary measures be used; let her die in peace.
We had a short goodbye time at home for family members; and a memorial service at church the next evening. Cremation of the body is being done at Gwen's request.

Advise for the reader:
Make your wishes about pain killers, life support, burial wishes, passing on of assets with minimal cost, etc. plain and in writing to the people around you.

Thanks be to God for all His blessings on Gwen's life, here and forever.


Pastor Peters said...


The comfort of the Lord and the hope of the resurrection of the dead to life everlasting keep you in your grief and sustain you until the day when you are reunited in the place of everlasting life and light in Christ our Lord.