A few weeks ago I pointed out a comment I received on here defending assisted suicide for the terminally ill on the grounds that “it is how we live that matters, not how we die.” For the most part people want to be remembered (and want to remember others) for the way they “lived” their lives. We want to remember only the happy times, when we and our loved ones were well and enjoying all that “life” had to offer. Since sickness and death are opposed to this very ideal and since death is inevitable for all of us, we should at least have the option of going through it without having to endure a long period of pain and suffering, right?
Of course life is meant to be enjoyed and we should do what we can (within reason) to try to ease human suffering. However, and it’s so cliche to say this, life is a journey with many different experiences – good and bad, happy and sad – and each of these experiences and how we deal with them helps to shape our character and prepare us for what we might face in the future. The experience of death is no different. In his book Ethics and Human Life, Dr. Joseph M. Mauceri explains, through his own 30 year experience with dying patients, how in many ways death, when left to its natural course, is often a healing process (both for the patients and their loved ones) that prepares the individual to depart from this life:
The final point regarding euthanasia is that it is an immoral intrusion into spiritual time. Many dying patients have a profound experience of God, peace and reconciliation hours, days or even weeks before they die. These experiences are neither drug induced nor psychotic fugue states. They are moments of intense awareness; in fact, their very intensity often interrupts otherwise confused or lethargic states. Unlike the well popularized “near death” experiences of those who did not leave us, these patients leave with deep peace, and they bequeath a great consolation to their loved ones. In every case with which I am familiar, euthanasia would have prevented the experience by premature killing of the patient. If, you might say, that is of no consequence since they are dead in any case, the loss of these consolations would be a grievous loss for those of us who wait!…
My experience with many of the dying over nearly 30 years has left two powerful impressions. The first is that most people die in peace. They have passed through suffering, fear and doubt, but peace finally comes at the end. The other impression is that many whose faith was lost “come back,” as it were. I can only believe this to be the generous gift of faith and reconciliation that God wishes to give each one of us at the hour of our death. Illness, especially terminal illness, is always the occasion for a new journey and a new spirit. Some time may pass in anger and confusion about its meaning, but gradually lives begin to change. It is, as many have said, an opportunity given through suffering and grief to begin one’s own ascent to God.
We must not yield to the popular sentiments here regarding death. We must move toward death with the same confidence and faith in God’s love as we should the struggle and demands in our daily lives. We cannot really plan our deaths, despite all of the legal and ethical directives we might have in place anymore than we could live our lives without the unexpected crashing down on us. Life is what happens while we are making other plans, and death itself is always the unknown final drama. This is the reason why euthanasia is a lie. While it places us “psychologically” in control, it also requires of us what control always presupposes, a decision. If we have learned anything in our lifetime about us, about God, it is that we are not in control, and the wise decision is to repose in God’s care. I, for one, hardly think that the time near death is the time to lapse. (pp. 70 & 80)
God is always generous with the time He gives us. Because death is frequently met with much fear and anxiety, God gives us the experience of the dying process as preparation for this fantastic event. A time to be purified through suffering and practice total trust in His justice, mercy and love. Of course not all deaths occur in this way. In our fallen world accidents happen and people die instantly, but that doesn’t mean that we have the right to prematurely shorten someone else’s life, or our own. Like abortion, euthanasia/assisted suicide is an arrogant intrusion into the natural order of human life.