Social Issues, Theology

Losing the sting of death

In a recent article for Christianity Today, Ewan C. Goligher writes about the increase of physician-assisted suicides in Canada:

Grounding the freedom to be killed in the right to life might seem counterintuitive, but the court reasoned that the criminal prohibition on physician-assisted death could force “some individuals to take their own lives prematurely, for fear that they would be incapable of doing so when they reached the point where suffering was intolerable.” Moreover, the court deemed the prohibition on physician-assisted death as an interference with individual decisions about bodily integrity and medical care—rights of liberty and security.

One year later, the Canadian government followed the court’s instruction and legalized medically assisted death. Initially the law stipulated that assisted suicide was restricted to those with “grievous and irremediable suffering” for whom “death was reasonably foreseeable.” However, as the practice has grown in frequency and social acceptance, the restrictions intended to safeguard vulnerable populations have been progressively eliminated.

The topic of assisted suicide has been a hard one for me. Eight years ago, my father considered this option when he learned he was dying from cancer. There was one night that he didn’t have his usual pain medication, and I’ll never forget the sights and sounds I witnessed, knowing there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. He explained to me later that pain so deep, so all-consuming, makes it impossible to think or feel anything else. 

A life like that, he reasoned, made death a more attractive alternative. I’ve had relatively good health my whole life, so who was I to question him? 

Dad ultimately decided he’d rather spend his remaining time with family, rather than “check out” sooner than nature intended. That year was a difficult one not just because I lost my father to a devastating disease, but because it raised many uncomfortable questions about the redemptive nature of suffering. 

The Jewish culture in which I was raised prioritizes life, but also the alleviation of suffering. The Christian faith I adopted in adulthood teaches redemption through suffering. It felt like both sides of myself were yelling to get my attention, pulling me in different directions.

I thought about that blinding pain Dad experienced, and wondered: what if some forms of suffering have no purpose? No redemptive possibilities? What if it’s sometimes just…pointless?

I have to say, I find that possibility more frightening than untimely death. 

If Death Is Therapy, Who Isn’t Eligible?

I haven’t known physical pain like my Dad has, but I’m intimately familiar with emotional pain. I have clinical depression, and I’ve experienced sexual assault. Knowing I will never see justice done on this side of heaven has been an unbearable burden. Not seeking treatment for the trauma until years later made it worse.

It’s a different kind of pain than cancer, sure. One type of pain was all but guaranteed to end in death; the other made me wish I were dead. 

I never directly attempted suicide, but I obsessively thought about it for a long time. For a few years, I binge-drank to the point of blacking out, not really caring if I woke up. I would have advocated for the “right to die” because I desperately wanted to myself – I was just too afraid to actually do it. 

But you know what? During that period of depression, I had no insurance, meaning I had no access to antidepressants. Once that situation changed, and I also started seeing a therapist, my perspective entirely changed. Goligher writes that many of the patients interviewed for the article didn’t actually want to die; they just wanted the pain to stop. That’s precisely what I wanted as well. 

Today, having undergone a tremendous amount of mental and physical healing, I no longer wish to die. I’m still depressed – it’s a chronic condition with no cure – but also genuinely happy to be alive. There are so many things I would have missed out on if I’d ended my life all those years ago. It’s obvious now that I wasn’t in the right mental state to make such an irreversible decision. 

From the article:

The available data suggest that patients are not being coerced against their will into physician-assisted death, and yet the “culture of death” (a term I initially resisted as needlessly provocative) has taken hold in insidious and surprising ways. Assisted death is no longer seen as a desperate option of last resort but rather as one “therapeutic option” among many, a reasonable and effective means of definitively resolving suffering offered not only to the dying but also to those whose lives are not regarded as worth living.

The logic of assisted death has proven inexorable: If death is therapy that addresses psychological wounds of suffering and the feeling that life is pointless, then who shouldn’t be considered eligible?

Those who advocate for a “right” to assisted suicide may say it’s about preserving dignity and easing suffering, but underneath the veneer of compassion is something more sinister: a claim that some kinds of suffering make some lives not worth living. 

You can’t assert the former without implying the latter. Are we comfortable making that claim?

Suffering As An Offering

I had some terrible back pain about two weeks ago that made it difficult to get out of bed. I’m not entirely sure what caused it, but figure skating is the most likely culprit. With Tylenol and a heating pad, I was able to get to the crisis pregnancy center where I volunteer. My pain was pretty evident, as I had taped a hand warmer to the back of my neck. 

And yet for some reason my spirits were high. I was able to experience true joy in the work, even if I struggled to turn my neck, and all I could do was fold donated baby clothes. 

One of the other volunteers said, “Offer this pain up to Christ in worship,” which is easier said than done, but maybe that’s the secret. Not feeling sorry for ourselves, or letting pain define us, but offering it to Christ in worship, where it can be redeemed. I’m finding that I am so much more capable of handling hard things when my heart is in a spiritually healthy place.

I can’t speak to the suffering of cancer patients, and other forms of pain I’ve never felt. But I’d like to think that the theology of suffering I’ve gained in the meantime will serve me well when I do suffer physically, because true strength lies in the scars of a Savior who died and rose for me. As a Christian, resurrection is my ultimate hope as well.

Goligher concludes with the following:

…the message of the cross of Christ we bear for the world empowers faith, hope, and love in the face of suffering and death. We have faith in God’s purposes for ultimate good, we have hope in God’s power to redeem, and we have the love of God poured into our hearts.

Suffering cannot rob us of our true meaning—to know and commune with the one who gave himself for us. Indeed, by God’s grace it serves to deepen that communion. To depart and be with Christ is far better, but with patience and faith, we will wait for the master’s call.

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

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