Date: March 31, 2021
By: Rikka B.
The inspiration for this writing came from listening to a panel of physicians, lawyers, and ethicists discuss Bill C7 (amendments to Bill C14 - Eligibility for Medical Assistance in Dying). I was inspired by these people who devoted their work in assisting those who are suffering. Choosing not to abandon those who are at the height of their illness and exhausting all possibilities to alleviate it. Facilitating other techniques to make suffering bearable while appreciating the reality of an individual’s multifaceted suffering.
Note: I want to be precise in my language and as someone who works within palliative care, we take pride in the very act of assisting those who are dying. Palliative care is not the same thing as MAID. MAID is the process in which an individual seeking to end their suffering requests the assistance of a physician to end their life with a scheduled time to provide a lethal dose of an oral or injectable barbiturate. Palliative care is the art of using medical and non-medical means to help alleviate the symptoms of an individual who is suffering and typically reaching the end of life stages (early palliative care can also be used for those with life limiting diagnoses and conditions and not imminently dying).
We are all suffering to some degree. When it comes to suffering there is a human need to control the situation. When someone lashes out or acts out of character, we try to understand where the person is coming from. We give reason and excuse when those who are suffering act out of their norm as a means to control their situation. This is a natural way in coping and experiencing suffering. But what if suffering needed not to be controlled, but endured?
Who do we resemble when we seek to control? God. And as far as scripture is concerned, have humans not been seeking to be like God for all of eternity? Isn’t this why Eve took the apple? Not because she wanted to go against God, but because she wanted to be like him - “You will be like gods” (Genesis 3:5).
What does God do about it? What is his ultimate solution? It is to be like us. To become human. In order to understand the fallen nature of his creation, he chooses to become human. As the Church’s tradition goes, the reason Lucifer/Satan became a fallen angel was because it was revealed to him that God would permit his Son (Jesus, Word Incarnate) to be in hypostatic union with humanity- to become fully God and fully human.
A God who chooses to enter into life with us in the flesh, born of a human from infancy to adulthood. Sounds crazy, but reveals that we are loved. To take on our greatest pain of suffering and not to control it at all, but to show us how to endure it at all costs - “let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
If you were God, wouldn’t you leave out pain and suffering for yourself? That aspect of humanity is the most difficult. The only reason I can think that God would choose to live it out was if he wanted to fully understand the intricacies of humanity. It’s funny, we seek to be like God, yet God sought to be like us.
Our prime example in Christianity is of a God who chose to suffer and endure it for our sake. To be murdered on a cross and not “take himself down” (Mark 15:30); because he could have if he wanted to, but didn’t. For what? As an ultimate expression of generosity, through sacrifice of self for the good of all. In every way what Jesus did was sacrificial. In all he taught, in all his miracles, in all his relationships, he made them new - “Servants no longer, but friends” (John 15:15). Jesus ups the ante of the Golden Rule “Do to others as you would have done to you”. He says “Do as I have done to you” (John 13:14), serve one another, die to self, die for one another - “no greater gift than to lay down one’s life for a friend” (John 15:13).
As a palliative nurse I have had the privilege of witnessing what enduring suffering looks like. It’s not always perfect, but I have yet to encounter family or friends regret every last moment they had with their loved one. I have seen parents lay sleepless nights in the same bed as their dying child, anxiously anticipating any movement or lack thereof. I have seen family members take turns sleeping on the cold window sill of the hospital room to be at the bedside for any beck and call. I have also been the nurse of a patient estranged from his family, with no one who knew him as he took his last breaths. As I cleaned him up for the last time, I was the recipient of this honour, to have gained from this man’s last moments of suffering. Accompaniment is very powerful in alleviating/ lessening one’s suffering.
All throughout the Gospels, the very human inclinations Jesus had can be summarized with him repeatedly saying, “do you believe me?”, “do you understand me?”, “I have been with you all this time, and still do you not know me?” (John 14:9). He speaks the very cry of our own hearts. Do you see me? Do you know me? Because to be seen and known is to be loved. MAID has unfortunately been the result of our own humanity’s fault of missing this in our own loved ones. Have we seen them? Do we know them? Do we love them enough to endure the agony they experience until the bitter end? Many times, those requesting MAID have expressed being a burden, being in so much pain they just want to die. They fall into such a depression that they cannot see anything greater than having it all just end. A psychiatrist on the ethics panel that inspired me to write this said, “those requesting MAID are people who are at the height of their illness, and it is my job to find creative ways to alleviate any of their symptoms.” That is accompaniment.
Who were the people at Jesus’ side accompanying him to his death? Not perfectly, but they were there. Peter, John and James who fell asleep while Jesus was at the height of his anxiety. Jesus didn’t go alone to pray, he chose to be with a few of his disciples. The many women who followed throughout his Passion, walking with him from a distance. Of these women, his mother, knowing full well her son’s trajectory, she was there every step. Jesus was not alone.
Our dispositions change when time is no longer on our side. When we know there may not be tomorrow, we cling to every word. We listen for any last wishes or some of us hope for reconciliation and forgiveness, some kind of closure. When we allow time to take its course, yes we allow for more time in suffering, but we also allow more love, more generosity of self, more opportunity for closure. If we have had a rough Lent, how can we finish off strong by giving this holy week the closure we weren’t able to give last year?
Take on the stories from the start of his ministry (Wedding at Cana) all the way to him saying “it is finished” on the cross. This Holy Week let us listen to what Jesus’ last words are. Let us honor his legacy as we would a dying family member or friend. How can we accompany Jesus as we remember the suffering he endured for our sake? What is he saying to you? How can you honor his last wishes/words, not as God, but as our friend?
Have a blessed Holy Week.