A Time to Speak — Completing life well

Fr. Patrick Dolan

Though we acknowledge that we are all one day going to die, we tend to avoid that fact until we are faced with issues involving ourselves or a loved one. But because death is inevitable, it is more correct to think of it as “completing” life here on earth — rather than ending it. In addition to the fear we have of death, many carry guilt about how they cared for loved ones in their death process. As a doctor of moral theology, trained in Rome, let me assure you that there should be no guilt — none at all.  Here’s why:

Human life is messy, with so many specifics that rules cannot cover all the eventualities. Medical ethics are a very grey area, because of the rapid advances in treatment, which, up to about 1974, outpaced expectations. Then attitudes changed to where today many folks expect medicine to do everything. Many want “every possible test or procedure” tried whether or not it will likely help the dying person. We do not have to do “everything” for a loved one; for some, activities cause more trouble than the benefits they bring. When death is approaching, often due simply to old age when bodies eventually wear out, all we are required to do is the “basic care” of nourishment and cleansing (and the sacraments). Think of this as the kind of care a mother animal would give to her young.

Above that boundary of “basic care” there are many choices one can make but are not required. As our bodies shut down, most of us will deteriorate slowly, carrying some pain as part of our share in the cross of Christ. Treatments we can choose could be “standard,” which uses medicines well until they cease doing any real good — giving folks some time to prepare to “lay their life before the throne of God.” There is also the heroic or experimental option of trying new hopeful techniques — even though these can also hasten death, so one needs to say goodbye before beginning such treatment. 

Finally, there is the “nature take its course” option which removes all but pain relief medicines — knowing that they were only prolonging the process of decline. All these options, and any variants of them, are all good. They are all holy choices in a murky area. Indeed, sometimes the heroic option does lead to a dramatic cure or the “natural” option makes folks feel better because of the removal of the side effects of some of the medicines. No matter what choice you make (looking responsibly at the medical options available and sincerely trying to do what is best) your choice is a right and holy choice. At that point, any guilt one feels is a trick of the devil to attempt to pull us away from God through fake guilt.

As we each approach the “completion” of our lives, we can certainly do what our instincts tell us about our own bodies or for those of our loved ones. We do not have to do whatever any one medical practitioner tell us — for they can often disagree among themselves. Elder law experts advise that you let a surrogate know your wishes — for you know your body better than anyone outside you can. Whatever choices you make are right ones. Be at peace as you send your loved ones into the arms of Christ — and as each of us prepares for that journey ourselves someday all too soon.

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