I’ve spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about this post. I first started writing it when the news of Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her life was in the news. I worked on it off and on over the course of the next few months, but never felt that I could hit “publish.” In the last few weeks I’ve been following the story of Paul Coakley (a man who I never met but knows people who I know) who was very courageously fighting cancer that had spread throughout his body. He lost his battle with cancer a week ago, and in thinking and praying for him, I remembered this post. I also just heard about California’s new initiative to legalize assisted suicide. I think that maybe now is the time to hit publish on my thoughts. It’s probably not the most eloquent post that I’ve written (I’ve found that the longer I work on writing something, the worse it gets!), but it does say a little of what’s on my heart.
They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But what if “it” (whatever “it” happens to be) does kill you, or is going to kill you, or is going to kill someone who you love. Does it still make you stronger?
Walking with my husband as he prepared to die was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done in my life (the only thing that might have been harder was grieving for him after he died). When I chose to marry Peter, I was making a radical choice not to let fear run my life, but walking with him as he died put that decision to the test. Watching someone die and helping them as they go through the dying process is messy and scary. It inevitably involves a loss of control and a great number of tears shed, sleepless nights, and desperate times on your knees before God. And, yes, it’s true that there will most likely be physical pain involved, and certainly emotional pain as well, as you either prepare for your own imminent death, or walk with someone else who is. It’s also true, though, that the intimacy you experience as you help your spouse die will be an intimacy that you’ve never experienced before. Yes, there will be fear, but there can be joy as you care for the needs of your spouse, as you realize that you are loving them more by walking with them as they die, than you ever loved them before.
You see, people are not like animals. Animals have no understanding of the value of suffering. In other words, what doesn’t kill them, doesn’t make them stronger. They don’t know that suffering can be redemptive, and that it can be a path to greater intimacy not only with God but with those around you. That is why we “put down” animals when their quality of life has greatly diminished. We don’t “put down” humans, though, or, at least, we shouldn’t. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t act to ease someone’s pain as they make their way towards death. However, easing this pain doesn’t mean, or require, ending a life early.
If my husband had chosen to take his own life before he died naturally, I would have missed learning about how strong I was. I would have missed learning about my own capacity for suffering, and, also, my own capacity for love, and my ability to live without fear. In the end, I learned more about myself from walking with my husband as he died, and also from grieving for him, than I learned in all of the previous years of my life. That’s not something that I would trade for anything. Because of Peter’s life and death, I know, I truly know, that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; and that even if it does kill you, it can still make you stronger.
This isn’t to say that my husband’s death was “easy,” or that grieving for him wasn’t the most heartrending thing that I have ever done. This is to say though, that it was one of the most meaningful and fruitful things that I have ever done. It has made me not only a better wife and mother, but a more whole and complete human being. For that, I have Peter to thank.