FAUSTO GOMEZ OP
Remember John, the patient with metastatic brain cancer? After discarding the option of euthanasia, which shortens life unethically, and of dysthanasia, which postpones death unduly, John has accepted orthothanasia or allowing to die, and signed a “living will.” He has also asked his elder brother physician to please continue taking care of his terrible pain, and to his daughter, not to leave him alone.
Once in a medico-moral conference in Manila, I heard a psychiatrist say: “Ask not why a patient requests for euthanasia, but why life loses its meaning.” Indeed, finding meaning to the end of life, and to suffering can make of euthanasia not an option.
MEANING OF SUFFERING AND PAIN
The word “suffering” is derived from the Latin word “sufferre” or” sub-ferre,” meaning to bear: the sufferer is a bearer of burdens. Although mainly physical in nature, pain is closely related to suffering, which is more than just bodily pain. As Eric Cassell says, pain is undergone by the body, while suffering by the person. Radically, however, the experience of pain and suffering belongs to the whole person, who is body-soul. Often, the terms pain and suffering are used interchangeably. Suffering may be physical and moral (cf. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris).
May suffering and pain be useful? Do they have a positive meaning? In the order of nature, pain and suffering especially severe and chronic are evils that attack our integrity as human beings, limit our freedom and independence, develop in many of us feelings of anger, rejection and guilt – and the fear of alienation.
As an evil, suffering has to be avoided and fought. As an inevitable part of our earthly life – sooner or later, an intruder into our life –, we are asked to face it humanely, that is, reasonably, responsibly, and – as much as possible – courageously. In the order of divine grace, suffering is an evil, but it can become – when lovingly and patiently borne – an instrument of purification and salvation.
Suffering, including physical pain, is truly mysterious: mysterium doloris. Suffering is part of the project of human life that is realized in love. God is not indifferent to our infirmities. In fact, in his Son Jesus Christ, he shared our sufferings, and is with us when we are in pain. Out of love Christ died for all humanity. We, Jesus’ disciples, join our sufferings to the sufferings of Christ. The deepest meaning of the mystery of suffering is co-redemptive suffering or suffering as an act of redeeming love (Col. 1:24). How do we bear our cross – our darkness? We try to bear it with courage, patience and hope – and prayer. How do we help others carry their cross, their pains and sufferings? By relieving their suffering and accompanying them with compassion and prayer.
COMPASSION WITH THE DYING
True compassion with the dying – with our brother John – is not the false compassion of euthanasia that kills, but the true compassion of charity as love of neighbor, of all neighbors, especially the poor and the sick neighbor – as Jesus witnessed and taught us.
Following Christ, the Good Samaritan – the best paradigm of the healing and caring ministry –, we all have to be at the side of those who suffer in our families and communities, and to help them bear their sufferings. We have to accompany, in particular, the terminally and incurable ill. In his play Caligula, Albert Camus put these words in the mouth of Scipio: “Caligula often told me that the only mistake one makes in life is causing suffering to others.” We have to be at the side of the terminally ill in a nonjudgmental, non-paternalistic, but understanding, respectful and prayerful attitude.
The terminally ill patients need not only pain relief, but also empathetic solidarity; need not philosophical or theological explanations but compassion. In general, health care professionals try to free patients from pain, while significant others – immediate family, friends, the pastoral team and also the healthcare team – provide support and protection, security – and “a warm heart.”
Another important point to underline: those serving the terminally ill, in particular believers in Jesus, realize that the sick evangelize them, too, by silently inviting them to reflect on the gifts of health and relationships, on God, on our own sufferings, on the finitude of life, and on their loving union with the Crucified and Risen Lord.
How do we help others to die? We help them to die peacefully by praying with them and their families, by being with them, by accompanying them. While we ask the Lord to help us face our own death with courage, we ask him to help us face the death of our loved ones and our neighbors with compassion, with sympathetic solidarity. The Lord is particularly present in those who suffer. When we visit patients like John, we believe that Jesus is present in them. Jesus keeps telling us: “I was sick and you visited me” (Mt 25:36).
THE REALITY OF DEATH
Death is inescapable, inevitable, and utterly undeniable: “Man’s days are like those of the grass, like a flower of the fields it blooms; the wind sweeps over him and he is gone, and his place knows him no more (Ps 103:15-16).
Pain and suffering are travelling companions on our journey of life. They appear as veiled or clear warnings of the reality of death. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, Illness “can make us glimpse death” (CCC, 1500).
As Christians, we are asked not only to accept our death but also to help others accept theirs. Physicians, and other healthcare givers, are asked by their profession – and by their faith – to help the terminally ill and dying accept their death at the proper time. To be able to do this responsibly, they must have accepted the reality of death not as a failure of medicine (except when there is a gross negligence), but as a natural end of earthly human life.
For Christians, death is also a very important and difficult reality, but not the ultimate reality. The ultimate reality is eternal life with God: “Where might the human being seek the answer to dramatic questions such as pain, the suffering of the innocent and death, if not in the light streaming from the mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection?” (John Paul II). “I am not dying. I am entering life” (Saint Therese of the Child Jesus). “If you are an apostle, you will not die. You will change of house and nothing more” (St. Josemaría Escrivá).
Objective ethical guidelines and answers are not hard, but personal decisions at the end of life are often extremely difficult. The bishops of Illinois advice: “We must not let some of the ambiguities of end-of-life decision making lead us, on one hand to a neurotic fear that we will incur Christ’s judgment for not acting with sufficient care and, on the other hand, to choose reckless or misguided care for our loved ones. In consulting with legitimate Church teaching, our conscience can be formed so that decisions made even in emotionally laden situations are moral, compassionate and appropriate.”
On earth we are pilgrims, co-travelers on the way to the Father’s house: we are citizens of heaven. Our life is God’s gift which we must treasure from womb to tomb. Our faith, God’s unmerited gift, is hopeful. Our love – God’s love – makes of our life a faithful and hopeful journey to heaven. Certainly, love is stronger than death.
At the end of his earthly life, John is suffering with continuing pains. He has signed his “living will.” His brother physician is helping him diminish his pains by prescribing the appropriate painkillers. His daughter, family and friends are giving him “a warm heart” so that he does not suffer from loneliness, from feeling alone, which would mean social death. They all, with the members of his parish are praying with and for him. John has asked for the Anointing of the Sick and Holy Communion. He is calm and at peace within and without. He is ready to go.
“You, dear Lord, have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (St. Augustine). May God bless us all!
(Published by O Clarim, June 23, p. 10)