Dying with dignity does not mean avoiding humiliation and pain.
My mother-in-law died nine years ago. It was a long drawn out and difficult process.
Seven years before her death, she had been struck down in the prime of her eighties by a massive stroke. Before that clot in her brain exploded my mother-in-law had been a vibrant, independent, active senior. She lived in her own house, taught a seniors’ weaving class in the community, and traveled regularly to visit family in Europe.
Suddenly she found herself completely incapacitated. The stroke was supposed to end my mother-in-law’s life. But, with tenacity and determination, she defied all odds and continued to live, although a life considerably reduced.
In her last seven years my mother-in-law could not walk, feed herself, use intelligible speech to communicate, or toilet herself. She was confined to a wheelchair and lived in a care facility.
While she may not have been in unbearable pain, my mother-in-law certainly suffered all the humiliations most of us fear at the end of life. She was utterly weak, helpless, and completely incapacitated.
Most people would go to great lengths to avoid the final years my mother-in-law lived.
But she loved those seven years. She got to meet her grand-daughter’s future husband. She was able to attend church where, with her one working hand, she would reach out and touch people passing her wheelchair each Sunday. She cherished her weekly visits to our home for dinner and her evening snacks snuck with the gracious staff at Aberdeen. Her daughter took her to concerts and drove her to familiar sights around the city.
Although she might have been considered a burden, my mother-in-law’s zest for the limited life left to her brought great joy to many people.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, just as we do not control the process of coming into this world, so we are not in control of the process of our departing.
We live in a culture that believes we should be able to live without pain. Now we seem determined to be free of pain even as we make our final journey beyond physical life.
The illusion of control that we seek in our determination to dictate the moment of our final breath in a painless death is not dignity.
Dying with dignity, like living with dignity, means bearing with grace the realities of life and death as they present themselves.
Dignity comes to those who acknowledge that they are not in control of the most fundamental forces of life yet choose to live fully no matter how limited their circumstances may be. Dignity resides in those who submit to a force greater than individual choice and open to the possibility that love may be born at the moments when we are weakest and most helpless. We are dignified when we bear the inevitable pain of life and allow that pain to be an instrument of transformation.
We are dignified when we have the grace to lean forward with a smile and allow our son-in-law to wipe us after we have relieved ourselves on the toilet. Bearing indignity with grace is the true beauty of being human and the source of our deepest humanity. It is tragic to deprive the world of this gift because we fear the possibility we may be viewed as a burden or may have to walk through dark days of torment and pain.
Christopher Page is the rector of St. Philip Anglican Church in Oak Bay, and the Archdeacon of Tolmie in the Anglican Diocese of B.C. He writes regularly on his blog www.inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com
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This article was published on Faith Forum in the Times Colonist on Saturday, April 8 2014