Recently, the story of a 29-year old California woman named Brittany Maynard made headlines around the world. Newly married, Brittany was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a rare, aggressive and inoperable brain tumor, earlier this year. Initially hoping to die at home in hospice care, Brittany writes that such an option would bring about undue suffering and a “nightmare scenario” for her family.
Since there is no cure for her illness, Brittany announced that she intends to end her own life on November 1, surrounded by her husband and family. Brittany, her husband and mother have relocated to Oregon because of the state’s “Death with Dignity” law, under which mentally-competent, terminally-ill patients with a prognosis of six months or less to live can request and receive a prescription for a lethal dose of medication to help them end their lives.
Brittany’s situation is heart-wrenching, and her choice is also tragic. As Catholics, our faith compels us to work toward building an environment of compassion and care that nurtures and sustains all life, even in the most challenging of human events and personal circumstances. Pope Francis has said “even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”
In assenting to God’s timing for the length of our days, we recognize God as the author of our lives, the artist who creates and loves His masterpiece. Those of us who witness and accompany the suffering of the sick and dying participate in an important part of pro-life ministry. Such self-giving, sacrificial love can help caregivers answer Christ’s call to sanctification through action. The dying process can be a gift by which we both give and receive love and grace, not only for the person who is dying but for their loved ones as well.
Like Brittany Maynard, Kara Tippets is dying. A wife and mother of four, Kara is journeying toward her final breath with stage IV cancer. In a beautiful letter to Brittany, Kara writes that while it may seem God has asked the two of them to walk an impossible path, “That last kiss, that last warm touch, that last breath, matters — but it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed….[W]hen we trust Jesus to be the carrier, protector, redeemer of our hearts, death is no longer dying.”
In their statement, “To Live Each Day,” the U.S. Bishops state that replacing God as the author of life denies both patients and their loved ones the opportunity to say goodbye, and to receive the gifts of love, compassion, care and memories in their final days. Rather than prevent a prolonged dying process, assisted suicide can leave those left behind with a sense of lost time to make those last memories, give those last kisses, and feel those last warm touches. “True compassion,” the Bishops say, “alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with those who suffer.”
During this Respect Life month, let us pray for the Maynard and Tippets families and for all those who are nearing the end of their earthly life, that we all may come to a deeper respect for each other as masterpieces of God’s creation.