Dying with Dignity…

It’s a lot like living with dignity, actually, as David Mills notes here:

I see the appeal of “death with dignity” and programs like those offered in Oregon and the Netherlands, where doctors will help you leave this world at the moment of your choosing, without fuss or bother or pain. I do not want to die and I really do not want to die the way my father did. I would find the indignities as excruciating as he did, and I have no confidence I would deal with the pain as bravely as he. I would not want my children to see me so pathetic.

“Death with dignity” offers not only an escape from pain and humiliation, but a rational and apparently noble way to leave this life. All it requires is that you declare yourself God. Make yourself the lord of life and death, and you can do what you want. All you have to do, as a last, definitive act, is to do what you’ve been doing all your life, every time you sin: declare yourself, on the matter at hand, the final authority, the last judge, the one vote that counts.

But you are not God, and, the Christian believes, the decision of when to leave this life is not one he has delegated to you. To put it bluntly, he expects you to suffer if you are given suffering and to put up with indignities if you are given indignities. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord. And that, as far as dying goes, is that.

This is not, from a worldly point of view, a comforting or comfortable teaching. It is one much easier for Christians to observe in theory than in practice. In practice, we will want to die “with dignity.”

This is what my father taught me: to die with dignity means to accept what God has given you and deal with it till the end. It means to play the hand God has dealt you, no matter how bad a hand it is, without folding. It means actually to live as if the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, and in either case blessed be the name of the Lord.

Some of life’s most valuable lessons are the one’s we learn when we accept the privilege of accompanying a dying loved one on their hard last walk.

Increasingly in our society, we don’t want to learn the lessons, because they are painful. But it is a beautiful pain, and a via dolorosa not to be missed.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • elizabethk

    Dying with dignity is also what my father showed us — as did JPII. The more I read about these type of *dignity* deaths the more I hear there was something awful about it — the place was filthy, people uncaring, someone in greater pain than if they had died *naturally* It is not for us to choose our birth or death. Me, well I want to go down in a fiery air crash – boom, it is over. ;-) Nah — working on, daily – accepting whatever God brings to this amazing thing called LIFE!

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  • Teresa

    When my husband’s pain increased, he asked me to purchase a framed photograpy of JPII. The photograph was taken just as His Holiness was going through the most intense pain. Every time my husband wanted to complain he looked hard at that photograph. It gave him strength as much as humanly possible right up until the end when he died peacefully. The “dignity” death people will never understand the actual dignity that comes with natural death because they only embrace the selfish desire to kill in order to deny that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.

  • http://westernchauvinist.blogspot.com Western Chauvinist

    Here’s a challenge to the “living” with dignity part. My nearly 88-year-old mother says repeatedly, “I’ve lived too long.” I love her and will miss her terribly when she’s gone, but I *get* what she means.

    She had a heart attack several years ago, which, without advances in medical technology, would probably have killed her. Her own mother died in my mother’s arms in her own home of a massive heart attack. That was when living and dying with dignity was more commonplace, perhaps?

    My mother takes 11 prescription pills every morning, including 4 for high blood pressure. She takes several more in the evening. She has one remaining friend who is 94 and in only slightly better condition. Her short-term memory was damaged during her heart attack, but otherwise her mind is good. She often says it’s a good thing she had such a good mind to start with (true!), and “I’m losing my mind. I’m going to miss it.” Did I mention she’s maintained her sense of humor too?

    But, her mobility is horrible. She’s losing some essential senses, including sight and smell. Her ability to care for herself is drastically diminished, but she’d rather crawl around her own home on broken glass than move into a care facility. Her children living near her are geriatric themselves and dealing with complicated life-issues with their own adult children.

    I’m not proposing any un-Christian solutions here. I’m just pointing out that dying AND living with dignity, even when you define it as accepting God’s will, has been complicated by life-extending technology.

    [Yes, I think this is the next subject that we're going to take up as a people, figuring out what the line is between suicide, and simply saying, "I'd rather not endure this therapy..." Things always come down to these thin lines upon which we must balance.-admin]

  • Myssi

    My father is walking this hard walk; and it is a hard walk and yet it is nothing – NOTHING – when compared to the cross. My dad is looking forward to going home, but as a Vietnam Vet, he has intimate knowledge that getting home can be the worst part of the trip. He’s up for it, Jesus and Mom are waiting on the other side. My suffering watching it…his mother used to say to me, sometimes you have to take up your cross and FOLLOW Christ.

  • Sue from Buffalo

    It is very timely that I find this post today. My mother is, at this moment, in an intensive care unit. She is 86 years old. Pneumonia, congestive heart failure, faulty heart valve, cancer. Now on a ventilator.
    She knew what going on the ventilator meant. We saw my dad go through this exactly a year ago. She said to do whatever is necessary. She gave me messages for my brothers and their families. She is the most courageous woman I’ve ever met.
    She is suffering and so are we as we watch her. I’ve asked God to allow her to do her purgatory here on earth instead of later. Hopefully…that is what is happening.

  • http://www.fromthepulpitofmylife.blogspot.com/ Ruth Ann

    Beautifully and truthfully stated.

  • Maureen

    When I broke my arm in several places, I lived in constant pain. When I had to make my way across the ice that had just broken my arm, I felt helpless. When I had to beg others to call an ambulance for me, and when I had to have other people dress me and I couldn’t live alone in my own home, it was humbling and maybe even humiliating. When my mobility was reduced, it was frightening, and I was unsure if my arm would ever be back to where it had been.

    So obviously, I should have stayed out in the empty icy parking lot until I died of exposure, right? Obviously better for dignity and the salving of my pride, as well as stopping the drain upon the healthcare system when I used my insurance. And obviously when I was screaming for morphine, that meant I really wanted them to kill me, right?

    We could all die in the next minute. Pain isn’t fun and helplessness isn’t fun, but normal healthy life isn’t all fun and games either. We learn as we go along. Unpleasantness happens; nobody can flee it entirely.

  • Maureen

    (Well, actually it was more like cussing while waiting for morphine, and then apologizing to the nurse for cussing. But yeah, I’m very big on screaming when I’m in pain, and it never means I want to die. It means I’m screaming in pain.)

  • JuliB

    I think a big part of the problem is that so many doctors are stingy with pain meds out of fear of getting in trouble.

  • Peggy Coffey

    How do we know that if someone chooses to die, after suffering pain we might never know, that this is the time that was chosen for them to die? I remember being in the room with the family while my mother in law was dying, and my sister in law holding her hand and telling her it was alright to go. She died right after that. If we had used all of the life support machines available to us she would have lingered a little while longer, but not really lived. She had been battling cancer for months and in terrible pain. We chose not to continue that pain. So when is it really your time to die? I don’t believe God wants us to suffer in pain, but Catholics or Christians seem to believe it. If that’s the case, why do we put our animals to sleep when they are in pain. They are God’s creatures, shouldn’t they be made to suffer because life is not always easy and unpleasant things happen? Humans are no different. I don’t think they should suffer if they are in great pain and will get no better. They should be allowed to die on their own terms. After all, that might be the time that was chosen for them to die.

  • Jack Conrad

    Rebecca Adler: I just want to die with a little dignity.
    Dr. Gregory House: There’s no such thing! Our bodies break down, sometimes when we’re 90, sometimes before we’re even born, but it always happens and there’s never any dignity in it! I don’t care if you can walk, see, wipe your own ass… it’s always ugly, always! You can live with dignity; you can’t die with it!

  • John

    I will not accept the proposition that to acknowledge God as the author of life requires one to endure any amount of pain and humiliation in the course of a slow and inevitable death, especially in this age in which medicine can extend life but be incapable of curing an underlying disease or disorder.

    What kind of sadist are you people worshipping? How is it that you have come to believe that this God you claim to be the essence of love requires such a bitter end, aned for what purpose? How is it that to elect to avoid pain in the face of inevitable death somehow denies God his lordship over life or death? In such a circumstance, one merely accepts the will of God, which is indeed death. Is that not enough?

  • Sue from Buffalo

    John, I’ve been going through my own intense suffering as I am watching my poor mother in the intensive care unit. That and other painful family issues kept me from answering your post. I heard you but felt unable to deal with anything more.

    Today I came across a blog post that seemed to answer (at least in part) your question about what God would expect from us. (I don’t know if I worded that right).

    Anyways…(big breath)…here is a link to that blog where someone wrote her experience far better than I can. I hope that it helps explain what we’ve been struggling ourselves to understand.


  • John

    Thank you for the link you provided, and the story there is something to reflect upon.

    I will say, though, that it strikes me that the notion of spiritual love as a possible product of suffering, if chosen, is perverse. I say “chosen” because I would think that one, like the so-called bad thief, can be put to suffering yet refuse to accept it. I say it seems perverse because there is the possible implication that the existence or realization of such love is impossible without suffering. In other words, the God posited is one who without the least compunction sends his creation into an existence in which suffering of all kinds — not always deserved or earned –, is a guaranteed and recurring experience, yet insists that He is a personal God and one of love too. Just don’t you dare refuse to accept what is presented to you, unless you are prepared for terrible and eternal punishment. The “choice”, then, seems to be suffer here and for however long until you die, or suffer always because you did not want to suffer here. That seems pretty grim, especially for creatures who had no choice in whether to be presented with the choice at all.

    I don’t know. The notion that a person will accept what God does or allows to be done to him, and believe he is blessed by it, or else, is a very queer notion of love to me. Who really could have anything but fear of and revulsion for (not “fear of the lord”) a God like that, along with a deep desire to avoid Him or be avoided by Him?

    Anyway, thank you for the link provided, and for your blog.