What does it take to die with dignity? If one looks at the website of the “Death with Dignity National Center” and “Death with Dignity Political Fund,” one will assume that a death with dignity involves certain standard components, among them: The absence of debilitating pain, the ability to care for one’s personal needs, and the ability to avoid placing a financial and/or emotional burden on family and friends.
I believe that euthanasia laws are wrongheaded for a variety of reasons, but that is not my concern here. As a pastor and a former Hospice Spiritual Care Coordinator, I’m bothered by the idea that a person’s death will lack dignity unless she short-circuits the dying process by artificial means. The implication is that people who die in great pain and those who live without the ability to handle their personal care have lost their dignity.
I think of a red-headed kid named Farmer in our school. He was a few years older than me. He went off to Vietnam and died there, probably in the jungle somewhere, in pain and gasping for breath. They sent his body home in a box. But is anyone going to say that he died without dignity?
Over the years, I have been with many people during the last few hours of their lives on earth. I’ve prayed for them in the struggle. Occasionally I’ve closed their eyes when they’ve died. There was the mother and grandmother, surrounded by family and friends, who whispered her love to all while she still could. An hour or so later, she died.
There was my friend who died in the hospital, with her children and grandchildren around her bed. She was restless and agitated when I arrived. I encouraged her family, as I often have done, to tell stories about how they grew up, especially stories about their mom and grandma. It was a beautiful thing to see: The family laughing, crying, sharing one story after another for perhaps 40 minutes. I kept looking at my friend. I saw her quiet down. Her breathing became regular, and then softer. She slipped into eternity in the presence of her family, to the accompaniment of their stories of love.
Then there was the man who, when I first met him, treated me like the harbinger of death. But in time he came to accept me and to accept the fact of death’s approach. He began to laugh again. He told friends how he’d overcome his fears. He died in his own home, surrounded by the people who loved and cared for him, in peace.
I think of others. The man who died from complications related to the AIDS virus. The man who smoked a filter-less cigarette, maybe an inch long, around his oxygen hose. Occasionally, the cigarette would flare, and I thought we were all going to meet our Maker. But he listened attentively to the story of God’s love and died a day or two later in peace.
There was my own dad: A two-fisted Marine who never backed down from a fight, but couldn’t beat the lung cancer that attacked him. After coming to faith, he had become gentler and kinder, but he remained as strong as ever. When, a few days before he died, I asked him if he was afraid, he answered (in words I’d heard many times growing up): “I can do this standing on my head.”
There was my own mother, who lingered in her final illness. I asked God to spare her, but her trial continued. And yet she never lost faith or hope. Nor did she lose her sense of humor. She was joking with the Hospice nurse on the day she died.
Don’t tell me these people died without dignity. They lived with courage and died in ways that evoked respect and assured their families of their love. Though I disagree with those who support physician-assisted suicide, I understand their reasons and respect their opinions. But please call it what it is, not by some euphemism that implies that these people, and millions like them, had no dignity when they died.
— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County. Read more at shaynelooper.com.