Comment: Rediscovering the art of dying

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  • August 10, 2017

In the 16 months between the Supreme Court decision and the passage of federal legislation regulating medically assisted death, I was intensely involved in discussions and debates within the medical profession, among Catholic health care providers, ethicists and clergy, and with national and provincial government bodies. I was trying to mitigate the harms of the decision, particularly in the protection of the vulnerable, and in defending the right of conscientious objection for physicians and faith-based organizations.

I am experienced in the complex and often highly contentious world of public policy development, especially when a fundamental moral and ethical issue was at stake. But this experience was more frustrating than anything I had ever experienced.

I was deeply saddened by my inability to make any difference. I realized that my arguments against the use of a medical fix to end human suffering were unintelligible to a secular society where individual rights and choice trump all other considerations. Notions such as the sanctity of life, salvific suffering and trust in God have lost their meaning in civic discourse. The deep issues of human suffering at the heart of assisted death needed to be presented differently if they are to speak to ordinary human experience today.

In a simpler time, with limited medical options, death came quickly to most. In medieval times, Christians addressed the challenges of living in preparation for dying through the ars moriendi, the art of dying. This art leaned heavily upon two fundamental features of the culture: shared faith in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the importance of families and community. Care for the seriously ill and the dying were family and community activities. They accompanied the patient in prayer, sharing stories and laughing and weeping together. A close community bore the painful experience together.

The medieval art of dying may seem irrelevant to our experiences in the death-denying, death-defying world of modern, technologically driven medicine. In reality, the personal, spiritual and communal challenges of dealing with serious illness and dying have become more difficult. The ultimate challenge to the Christian understanding of a good death is presented by the legalization and normalization of medically assisted death.

While the media has filled us with vivid images of persons in intractable pain, requesting assisted death, the reality is quite different. People rarely request assisted death for pain, but rather are prompted by psychological distress and care needs, including uncertainty about the future, desire to control their death, fear of dependence, feelings of loss of dignity, fear of abandonment and guilt at being a burden to others. These are issues of human suffering.

Medically assisted death moves death from a natural, human event in the home and community into a medical act. It is the medicalization of human suffering. Because there is no prescription for suffering, death becomes the treatment.

For Christians, this is a rejection of the Paschal Mystery — the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus’ suffering is real, but it is also life-giving and redemptive. We do not seek suffering, but through our pain and suffering, we can become sharers in the redemptive work of Christ.

Physician-assisted death is a cry from our world for a new art of living and of dying and a call to witness to real mercy and compassion. Pope Francis reminds us, “An evangelizing community … has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy … An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. … An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be.”

Physician-assisted death has provided a new urgency for us to touch “the suffering flesh in others.” In light of inexorable movements in support of medically assisted death in our time, it is crucial to renew an art of living that helps us in our approach to sickness and interdependence and an art of dying rooted in Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.

We have professional groups and health systems to assist the sick and dying as we benefit from wonderful advances in medicine and health care. Unfortunately, this professionalization has fostered complacency about the duties of community.

We need to reclaim the duty and obligation of all Christians to care for the sick, dependent, dying and bereaved, and to accompany them in real and active community care. Today, those of us opposed to physician-assisted death are accused of failure to be compassionate and merciful to the suffering. We are not blind or deaf to situations of great suffering for individuals and families, in health crises and in life itself. But we believe we need to witness to life with care and accompaniment, not the intentional ending of life.

We need the courage to reclaim mercy and to fully respond to “the suffering flesh in others.”

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