A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Dying with Dignity

By  Juliette Sivertsen

By Juliette Sivertsen

There will – and already have been – an abundance of articles about the story of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman suffering a terminal illness who chose to end her life on the 1st ofNovember  2014.

I’m not here to write about why or why not she shouldn’t have done what she did. I’m not going to talk about the floodgates that may be opened up on the issue. I’m not here to tell you there’s always hope and to never give up, or tell you the story of my sister’s father-in-law who was given two months to live, and is still alive nearly two years on, following his diagnosis with terminal lung cancer. But what I do want to talk about is this.

 How can we ensure that those who suffer terminal illnesses, or the elderly, can live out their days with dignity?

Brave? Enduring Suffering

With so much talk of “dying with dignity” it feels like many of us have forgotten about those who are choosing to live. There are those around us suffering terrible afflictions, terminal illnesses, the elderly, those whose deaths are inevitable – those who are choosing to endure the suffering.

I have seen so many people on social media and in articles describing Brittany as “brave”. I am confused. The first definition that comes up in the Oxford Dictionary for brave is “Ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.”

Is ending one’s life prematurely to avoid suffering and pain, what we want to be called brave? And if that is so, what do we tell those people who are choosing to endure the suffering?

Missionaries of Charity

Missionaries of Charity

While some parts of society are trying to focus on dying with dignity, the rest of us need to challenge people to focus on LIVING with dignity….and that they have a dignified death through accepting God’s timing, not by determining the manner and timing of it ourselves.

Suffering and pain may be scary, but we don’t have to be afraid of it. We can learn to retain our dignity through suffering by embracing it. Through suffering we learn compassion. Through suffering we learn to love people in a new and beautiful way.

And what about those of us who are left with the task of caring for those who are suffering?

The Depth of Love in Suffering: Kolkata

Some years ago I was blessed with an opportunity to go on a mission trip to India. While in Kolkata we volunteered with the Missionaries of Charity – I was tasked with working with the sick, elderly and dying women. Women who had been scarred for life through acid burns. Women who had severe mental and physical disabilities and required spoon-feeding. Women who were severely disfigured. Women who had become a burden on their families. Women who, without the Missionaries of Charity, would no doubt have been left on the street to die.

It was no doubt the hardest time of my life, being confronted by so much pain and suffering. I wanted to hide. I wanted to cry. I fell ill halfway through and my body ached and I felt physically and mentally like I had no strength to go back and care for those who were so much more vulnerable than myself. How hard it was to see so much suffering right in front of me, an arm’s reach away.

But somewhere inside I had to remind myself that I was there to serve others. That God was using my hands to help these women. And I made a conscious decision to treat those women like I hoped someone was treating my Nana back home in New Zealand.

Learning to LoveSuffering

I always thought I knew what love meant. But in serving and caring for the most vulnerable, I truly learnt how to love.

I learnt how to love people when they were at their worst.

I learnt how to love people for who they were on the inside, not what they had become on the outside.

I learnt that through love, suffering can be endured, embraced, and turned into something beautiful. That brokenness is not always ugly; sometimes brokenness is beautiful, a broken person can be capable of great love and still has something beautiful to give.

At the time, my Nana was living out her final years in a rest home. It had been hard watching her health deteriorate. After my return from India I found a strength inside me to care for her. I was no longer afraid of getting close to her, physically or emotionally. Through caring for her in her advanced and frail years, in her suffering that she was enduring, I learnt to love her again in a new way and see her beautiful, peaceful soul before she passed away. I feel privileged and blessed to have spent loving tender moments with her at her end.

We must not be afraid of suffering, or caring for those who are suffering. Let us open our arms to each other, hold each other, and embrace our sufferings and pain so that we may live with dignity.   

With Permission from Restless Press

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