On faith and dying and being alone: One of many reflections on Brittany Maynard’s final choice

Thoughts prompted by hormonal blues, fatigue, an over active mind and this article:

Why do so many people feel compelled—feel that they have the right—to speak up about Brittany Maynard’s decision to take a lethal prescription to end her life before terminal brain cancer ends it? That may read as an angry, political, hedonistic question, but it is a deeply earnest one.

Is it because she is so young? As the NPR article I referenced above points out, most assisted suicides in America are carried out by educated, older, white adults. When someone not yet in her thirties is given months to live it shakes our faith in both science and God. “How can this happen to someone so young?Why can we not fix it?” Or is it because it flies in the face of American sensibilities? Even individual achievement, self-determination, and elbow grease cannot fix and control terminal cancer. Not even a marathon fundraiser. We can politicize and evangelize and criminalize cancer, but we cannot control a few hungry cells. Or, is it because death has become an altogether unspoken fear? The one thing in life that can be counted upon and yet it is kept quiet, ignored or kept neatly in distant mechanical headlines where it’s deep belly-ache hurt cannot be felt.

We are bad at death. And when it hits too close to home we are so paralyzed by the fear of it that we must deny the reality of its reality altogether or run away and package it to look like some other issue because our pain and suffering is too great to bear the pain and suffering of those who do not have the luxury of leaving the hospital at the end of the afternoon.

I am afraid of dying. I am afraid of what comes after. There are nights when I cannot shake that fear and I lie awake for hours hoping that the incandescent light of my desklamp will keep the shadow of the unknown from haunting me until morning. I am afraid of death and I am afraid of knowing when it will arrive. I am afraid, though without reason yet as Brittany had, of chasing after more time at the expense of my sanity and my peace and my body. I cannot know which fear would win out: of death or of dying. I have the luxury of avoiding the question. Brittany and her family did not.

So I keep asking myself, why are we so obsessed with Brittany and her choice? Why are we so compelled to tell her how she should have felt or acted, or that she was brave or cowardly, or that the Law is merciful or manipulative? There wasn’t a single news story until that NPR article that didn’t use Brittany to some other end. I don’t really care what the Law is(n’t) or what the right decision was. Brittany made her choice this weekend. It’s done. It can never be undone.

What I care about is that no one seemed to just listen to her. What is the point in fighting for “life” and “dignity” that isn’t guaranteed when we make the lives of others so miserable in the process? In the last few weeks and days of catching glimpses of headlines, the underlying fear of acknowledging death became so apparent. No one could rest with the hard and painful reality that death was coming to Brittany somehow, and is coming to each of us too. Be refusing to hear the story she wished to tell, by making it into our own soapbox for life and for dignity, we kept ourselves safe from the truth. I wonder how many people who have shared an opinion about what Brittany ought to have done have actually sat with a dying person. Some have surely, but many probably have not.

Death is lonely. There can never be anyone there to hold my hand through it. Why must we take the suffering of others, whether mental, spiritual, physical, and twist it into a narrative that soothes our own fears? Can we ever learn to acknowledge our fear and put caring for the dying before our own discomfort?


Image via Guilherme Yagui

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2 comments

  1. Christopher Snell · November 4, 2014

    You’re right, this country does nothing to prepare us for death. However, I can tell you form personal experience, the way to overcome the fear of death is to connect to God in what ever language you have for that. Meditate on His loving, forgiving presence.
    Blessings…

  2. Nathan · November 5, 2014

    Paul had a superhero-like confidence in his postmortem fate, “to live is Christ, to die is better” (Philippians 1:21). And his hope was secure (and can be for all of us as well) because it was rooted in biblical truth given by the Holy Spirit, John said, “I write these things to you who believe in Christ that you would know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). And that eternal life is granted to those who believe in the Father and the Son, Jesus said, “in my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2).

    Dying can be lonely, scary, shocking, traumatic, painful, heart-breaking, and overwhelmingly sad.

    But it doesn’t have to be void of joy.

    The tragedy of Mrs. Maynard’s death is that her peace was predicated on the inevitability of her mortality rather than the sovereignty of God.

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