As Brittany Maynard’s Date of Departure Approaches

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photo credit: Brittany Maynard / CNN

“It is nothing to die; it is horrible not to live.”   Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

If I had just seen the stage and film production of Les Miserables without having read the book, I would not have been as immersed in the awful, tragic circumstances that seemed to mount with each turn of the page.  It couldn’t get any worse, and then it would.  And despite the fact the story actually ended with a sense of redemption, I still felt utterly stricken by the losses.  I felt the same when I first heard Brittany Maynard’s story two weeks ago.

Like Fantine in Hugo’s tale, they are both beautiful and young with a vibrant future cut short by desperate circumstances.  It just isn’t fair, is it?  Brittany Maynard was 29 years old when she received the news of her brain tumor.  It was aggressive and after careful deliberation she and her family relocated to Oregon where they have the Death with Dignity law.  They decided that she would end her life on Nov 1, 2014.  Even writing this makes my heart ache.  To see her full story click here. 

What makes her story so poignant is the fact that she is so young, and her beautiful wedding images immediately place pictures in your mind of their future family, future vacations, future sleepless nights with spit-up and night feedings that will likely never come to pass.  I say likely, because there’s always the chance of a miraculous healing.  It’s happened before.  But let’s face it; we’ve seen cancer.  We’ve all been touched by it in some form or fashion and to quote Jen Hatmaker last week, “Cancer is an a**hole.”   I used to manage Radiation Oncology departments, and I’ve seen life expectancy ranges that were completely blown out of the water.  Patients that have lived years longer than anyone expected.  I’ve also seen the ranges turn out to be spot on.  Her prognosis is probably not far from accurate.  Although my mind wants to focus on this healing possibility, I don’t think this is the issue at heart.

I’m thankful Brittany’s had the opportunity to make this a national discussion.  With her platform and agenda to support Death with Dignity legislation across the country, we all need to wrestle with this because there are implications. My purpose here is not to make a case for any position.  I certainly have leanings, but until I’m in Brittany’s shoes, it’s hard for me to say.  I want to contribute to the discussion and continue wrestling toward some kind of answer.  There may not be a good one.  Two articles were written a couple of weeks ago when the story first broke.  The first was written by Kara Tippets as a host blog on Ann Voskamp’s site aholyexperience.com.  “Dear Brittany, Why We Don’t Have To Be So Afraid Of Dying That We Choose Suicide.” The second was written by Jessica Kelley on her blog, Jess in Process, in response. “Can Christians Support Brittany Maynard’s Decision?”  A couple things they said stirred me.

Is there beauty in death?

Kara Tippets says, “yes” and Jessica Kelley says, “no.”  Kara is currently dying from breast cancer and Jessica watched her young son die from a malignant brain tumor, so they both have first hand experience with a painful death process.  Their conclusions about beauty in death are not flippant, and they both have looked to God’s Word.   So I too went to scripture to see how I might navigate these murky waters.  And I think scripture supports them both, but they must be placed in light of one another.

When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, the curse of death was immediately placed upon them.  And it was indeed NOT beautiful.  Satan’s goal from the beginning has been to kill.  When Jesus died an undeserved death, it was about as gruesome and painful as it could be.  While praying before he was arrested, Jesus asked if this “cup” of suffering could be passed from him, and then he submitted to it despite his foreknowledge.  He did not enter his death with curiosity.  He knew exactly how it would go down.   Much like Brittany has researched everything about her disease. His death was for the purpose of carrying the burden of the world’s sin.  And here’s where it goes from terrible to beautiful.  His resurrection conquered death once and for all.

Romans 6:9 “We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again.  Death no longer has any power over him.”

So the beauty is in God’s greater purpose not in the death process itself.  And folks, as much as we would like to understand God’s purpose for our life, we may not.  It may unfold after our death.  Stephen was stoned by the Jews for his faith in Christ.  It was in no way pleasant.  Yet there was a greater purpose, for we know the Apostle Paul (A.K.A. Saul) was holding the coats of the stoners, condoning their actions.  I don’t believe for a second that event wasn’t significant for him and didn’t factor into his conversion and eventual testimony.  I sometimes wonder if the Apostle Paul had any idea his life and death would have the effect it did.   As Christians, we should want to see God’s purpose lived out in our life and our death.  That requires the Holy Spirit living through us, prompting and supporting our obedience.  If you want to dig into that more, I write a weekly bible study that is currently focused on how to live an empowered life.   Click here.

So Is it Wrong to Avoid the Suffering in Death?

Years ago, my grandfather was confirmed to have Congestive Heart Failure.  He was otherwise healthy and lived many years with it.  As it worsened, it pained me to see him continually hospitalized, watching his quality of life deteriorating right before my eyes.  It’s a disease where you basically suffocate very, very slowly.  He loved the Lord and dedicated himself with every fiber in his body.  I fervently prayed and asked God to spare him the suffering.  As it would happen, when he entered the hospital for a second open-heart surgery to improve his quality of life, he developed an infection and never made it to surgery.  He died within two days.  I felt like God was answering those prayers.  No sane person wants to endure suffering and watch that of a loved one.  I honestly think we would be lying if we said it didn’t or wouldn’t ever cross our minds to wish for life to end early and avoid the suffering.   Because we might wish it, doesn’t mean we will take action, but it should mean that we can identify in a meaningful way.

Let’s flip the argument and consider life extension.  Jessica Kelley argues that “we certainly don’t live without assistance…must we die without assistance?”  Consider the cases where patients are only alive with artificial support.   All clinical authorities have determined that nothing can be done to save the infirmed person, and that a decision must be made on whether or not to remove life support.  I would venture to say it’s mostly the same set of people who disagree with Brittany’s decision who would also argue in favor of pulling life support and allowing the patient to die with dignity.  I tend to lean in this direction myself if for no other reason than consistency.  In both cases there is no assistance, and while there is a distinction between the two examples, it is slim. I recognize it’s a slippery slope, because where do you draw the line on life or death without assistance?  It could mean that I won’t use any assistance to extend my life.  Should I not pursue cancer treatment at all and allow nature to take its course?  Some people do make that choice, but it’s not for everyone.  I think we would all agree it’s an intensely personal decision.  Both sides of the argument boil down to weighing the quality of life now and what you expect in the future.   Murky, murky waters because we just don’t know what the future holds in full.

Can I Trust God to Lead Me in Every Way?

While we are not all suffering from terminal cancer, we all have circumstances in life that are painful.  I raised this issue on my Facebook page to generate some discussion and the comments were very insightful.  One in particular stood out.

“I read the initial interview with the young lady who will be ending her life on November 1. One of the most interesting takeaways for me was that she said she was not committing suicide – that she wanted to live, but she didn’t want to suffer and that her case was terminal, and she was going to die anyway. I’m not going to argue her decision. I will say that’s pretty much what I’ve heard from numerous people with mental health disorders – most suicidal people don’t want to die. They just don’t want to suffer. And they see no value in prolonging their suffering.

“For people suffering from bipolar, for example, who have been through multiple treatment protocols that just make them feel sick and ineffective and not themselves – they see no hope of a “normal” life ever. How is their choice to end their suffering different from someone ending their life because of a cancer diagnosis?

“To use the most well known recent example of Robin Williams, so many people talked about what a horrible tragedy it was that he ended his life. I agree. But it’s likely his reasoning was not all that different from Brittany’s. So, how do we reconcile wanting mentally ill people to live with their suffering with wanting to have “compassion” on those with other terminal illnesses. Ultimately, we’re all terminal.” Jill Manty

Some of our finest moments, our greatest testimonies, and our significant impact on others come through the suffering.  That’s why Paul says in Philippians 3:10, “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead.  I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!”  It may be difficult, even terrible, yet it is not relieved of meaning.   Can I trust Christ in everything…even death?

I aim to keep the discussion going so as to learn from all who have thoughtfully considered it.  As in everything, even the complicated things, the depths of God’s grace are unfathomable and He will meet us where we are.   Do you want to put in your two cents worth?

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