This is an article I wrote for the St. Frances X. Cabrini grief ministry's newsletter, Good Grief.
I hear so many people today say, “I never want to be a burden to my kids....I am glad that I took care of Mom/Dad, but I wouldn’t want my kids to have to take care of me that way....If I get Alzheimers, just shoot me....I don’t see the point of suffering through the agonizing last stages of cancer let alone someone having to take care of me....I’d rather just die than to go through chemo and radiation....When there is no quality of life, what is the point?”
These statements and questions reflect our fear and our dreaded powerlessness when it comes to end-of-life issues. And they also reflect a growing trend in our society to deny those who love us the opportunity to take good care of us when we need good caring. They reflect our inability to “surrender” to being loved. Some of us can’t even imagine that someone wants to love us by taking good care of us. We are becoming more and more like Peter who was adamant that Jesus was NOT going to wash his feet. Unfortunately, our stubborn and ironically selfish mind set feeds a growing interest in assisted suicide as an option to end-of-life “care.” And we are also teaching the next generation that it really is preferable not to take care of our aging loved ones, but to farm them out to the growing business of “retired” and “memory care living.”
We have bought into the “company line” when it comes to illness and treatment. Our very language limits our response to serious illnesses and allows only one choice: die a dreadful death. For example, we talk about “terminal illness.” Or we might even go so far as to tell someone, “you’re terminal.” So what chance of life do they have, now that we have defined their life as terminal? The language indicates that the only option is to patiently or inpatiently wait for the death train to pull into the station to take them away.
The fact of the matter is that every person on the face of the earth has only THIS MOMENT. We are all terminal.
And when we talk about either ourselves or someone else no longer having quality of life, what exactly do we mean? How is it that we do not experience being exquisitely cared for at the end of our life by the people who love us as QUALITY OF LIFE. What better way to leave this earth than to be loved to the nth degree? Or what if receiving that quality-of-life care, perhaps for the first time in either our adult life or our life period, becomes the catalyst to our healing and recovery from our illness?
And if you don’t see chemo or radiation as a quality of life option for yourself, there are other options, and there are many many people in the medical field who are now investigating the divine power that each of us is given to self heal. Wishes Fulfilled, Wayne Dyer. The Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton. You Are The Placebo, Joe Dispenza, M. D. Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You can Heal Yourself, Lissa Rankin, M. D. There are folks like Pamela MacDonald a nurse practitioner in Northern California who uses integrative medicine to support people healing from illnesses that typically leave one doomed for certain death. And folks like Larry Dossy, M. D. who integrates spirituality and medicine in his practice and believes in miracles.
I’m not suggesting quackery, but simply informing you of the options being offerred to us by sound and scientific people who have come to believe that when we are ill, we are more than our diseased body.
And when it comes to pain in general, the business of medicine, consciously or unconsciously, wants us in the dark about pain management that does not require drugs. So that leaves us with a reasonable enough question. If there is not a drug to remedy our pain, especially at the end of life, why stick around? What’s the point of suffering?
There is so much that no one teaches us about pain management. For example, I can have pain, but I can choose whether or not to suffer. Whoa! Am I for reals? Yes, in fact, a new pain management program at the Betty Ford Center, Palm Springs teaches folks, who live with chronic pain, how to take control of the pain without medication. Really? Yes, Really!
David Kessler, who has been working with dying people for twenty five years, says this about assisted suicide. “I don't believe that if you're getting poor pain management or inadequate end-of-life care, in a civilized society, suicide should be your best option for a good death.” You can read the entire article online.
What if we talked about end of life issues differently? What if we looked at being taken care of at the end of our life as a divine gift? What if we looked at the experience of having our diapers changed as a tender moment rather than something burdensome and disgusting? What if we changed our entire vocabulary to describe the end of life as a time of healing, of caring, of loving, of preparing for the journey, a journey we invite all of our loved ones to be intimately involved in, with us, right there with us? What if we, as a faith community, committed x number of hours each week or each month to be a part of one of our fellow parishioner’s end of life journey?
Why would we walk away from such beautiful people when the end comes?
In 1977, We sent Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 on a journey deep into space to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto and Uranus. In 2011 and 2012, these spacecrafts each plummeted BEYOND our solar system. To this day, they continue to send back information about their voyages. It takes 17 hours for the radio signals to travel from the probes to earth, and 17 hours for earth to send command signals back. These radio signals travel at the speed of light, so you do the math. 186,000 times 3600 times 17. That’s how “far out” these probes are.
If we can go that distance, we must have the God-given intelligence to go the distance in caring for our loved ones and go the distance in allowing our children and loved ones to care for us in our common end-of-life journeys which will take us far beyond the universe as we know it. It’s not a “far-out” idea, but one that ancient and native societies practice as a way of living. Perhaps we need to return to those ancient and native values of family and community and hold precious those at the end of their life, revere them, wave good bye to them knowing assuredly that we walked with them to the finish line. And allow ourselves the same honor and privilege.
In the next article, we will explore the spirituality of end of life care.