I’m showing my age, but I remember a song that Blood, Sweat and Tears recorded; it’s the theme song for this post. Part of the lyrics go like this:
“Give me my freedom for as long as I can be.
All I ask of living is to have no chains on me…
And all I ask of dying is to go naturally…”
As a chaplain, I have been a part of many conversations with families over end-of-life care. I know from personal and professional experience that they are brutal. While there are great resources and trained professionals to help and support the decision-making process, there is no way to express the heartaches that accompany it.
The scenarios I have witnessed came to mind as I read a recent news story about the recent death of Diane Rehm’s husband. Diane, a public radio personality, shared the details of her husband’s death by dehydration when his doctor could not and would not help him die faster in his end-stage Parkinsons disease. So, despite the best medical support and symptomatic relief possible, for nine days he refused food and drink, enduring discomfort and pain.
What John Rehm wanted is called “aid-in-dying”, according to the group Compassion and Choices. Diane notes that this is a carefully monitored and controlled action; it is reserved for “mentally competent, terminally ill adults to request life-ending medication from a doctor for a peaceful and painless death. It’s legal in several states, but not Maryland.”
Here is the ticklish part: objections from religious and legislative leaders are based on their belief that this is “assisted suicide” or it is a function of a “death panel” (which, contrary to some pundits’ opinions, do not exist.)
This is a patient-initiated directive. Just as John Rehm decided to stop eating and drinking, it is a carefully considered and though-out plan of action by an individual, and assessed, vetted and supported by a patient’s medical and personal caregivers. It is a difficult designation; those who are eligible for this kind of decision-making make up a very narrow slice of society.
It is not suicide. It is allowing every option, every medical intervention and treatment to be on the table. It is not decided on an administrative level, but on a personal level. It gives patient autonomy new life, if you will, as a patient’s wishes when in a life-ending condition are paramount.
Diane Rehm writes of the difficulty she had watching her husband slowly die. She respected his wishes, honoring their commitment to one another to be there for each other, in every circumstance.
“I wanted to take applesauce and put it in his mouth,” Rehm said. “But you can’t do that. You have to respect someone else’s wishes. You have to honor his desires. And he was finished with life. He said ‘I am looking forward to the next journey’,” she added.
As pastors, we celebrate every life event with our congregants: birth, baptism, confirmation, marriage, and death. We walk with them in some of the most joyful and heart-breaking moments. We bring our tears and prayers, our heart-felt petitions for healing. It seems that to be pastoral and political in this instance, we also must offer prayers for release. We do not look to control the lives of our parishioners, but to support them in the trials and sufferings of this life.
It takes courage and wisdom to walk “in the valley of the shadow of death”. But it is part of the work we pastors do. We need not to shy away from this political conversation, but to pull up a seat at the table and engage with our knowledge of morality, ethics, and the work of God in human lives.
NOTE: The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect the policies or position of the employer or congregation of the writer.