Do you want to die well? Do you want to die with dignity? I suspect that desire resides in the hearts of just about everyone. But, what does it really mean to die well?
I’ll admit, at 32 and healthy, I haven’t had occasion to give much in the way of thought to this question. I tend to be too busy changing diapers, chasing screaming 3-year-olds, helping tired kindergartners adjust to the new reality of homework, carve out time to be a good husband, and lead a church to reflect more than a little bit on dying. But recent events have brought the question to my attention all the same.
This past January, Brittany Maynard, a newly married 29 year-old woman with her whole life ahead of her, got the news that she had a malignant brain tumor. Her diagnosis came with an expiration date: 10 years to live marked by excruciatingly painful headaches most of the time. Then in April she got an unexpectedly depressing update: things were progressing much more quickly than anyone could have predicted and she actually only had six months to live. All of a sudden, this 29 year-old with no reason to entertain the notion of dying was facing the tragic and frightening likelihood that before the ball drops on 2014 she will be dead.
Actually, if she follows through with her plans, she’ll be dead a lot sooner than that. Maynard’s response to the news of her condition was for she and her husband to move from San Francisco to Oregon where a 1997 law called the Death with Dignity Act allows people to voluntarily end their life with the aid of a doctor. With the public announcement of this news and a viral YouTube video, Maynard has suddenly become the new face of the assisted suicide movement.
If her plans stay on course, on November 30, two days after celebrating her husband’s birthday, Maynard will gather at home with her family, put on some of her favorite music, take a lethal combination of pills, and close her eyes on this life for the last time. While she protests that “there is not a cell in my body that is suicidal or that wants to die,” she will all the same commit suicide so that instead of a painful, suffering-filled road to the inevitable, she will be able to have a good death that comes on her own terms. In other words, she wants to die well.
But is this dying well? As Christians, how should we think about this whole situation? What could we possibly say to someone in Maynard’s place? What should we say to a culture being vigorously told to celebrate her decision?
Let’s get something straight first and foremost: there are no easy words to speak into this kind of a situation. There are no simple answers. This is a place where the powers of sin and death are asserting themselves loudly and the compassion that naturally dwells in our hearts as image bearers of a compassionate God wants to see them pushed back out of sight and mind as quickly as possible. Plus, the secular priests of our culture have spoken definitively: to oppose what Maynard is doing is unloving and hateful. Anyone who would wish for the pain she and her family are going through to last any longer than is absolutely necessary should be ashamed of themselves.
On that last point, I hope we are all in agreement. As Christians we recognize situations such as this proclaim boisterously that the coming of God’s kingdom is not yet final. We should work and pray against them with every fiber of our being. We are right to hate them. We should do everything in our power to see them eliminated entirely. Our compassion for Brittany and her family should be enormous.
But…can we support her plans? Is this what it means to die well? Is a good death one that happens in a familiar place with family gathered near and pleasant music playing in the background? One that ends our suffering painlessly? One that happens on our own terms? As much as it pains me to say so: no. Our answer to each of these questions must be an emphatic, resolute, humble, gentle, compassion-filled no.
Here’s why. Suicide is a delicate and complex issue. Where mental illness is involved it is doubly tragic and the families who are the victims of heartbreak should be given all the care and compassion they are due. But, this is not such a case. Maynard is presumably of sound mind. She simply wants her death to be on her terms. In this kind of situation suicide is perhaps the ultimate (and final) statement of human autonomy. If we understand God as the creator and author of life, suicide is the clearest statement someone can make of their commitment to the idea that she is god and He is not. It is as firm an endorsement of the basic worldview beliefs of atheism as you will find anywhere, namely, that God does not exist.
Brittany Maynard should be given all the care and compassion available. She should be able to relish her final days with her new husband and family. We as Christians should support her with pray and any other kind of affirmation that is appropriate. We should cheer her efforts to seek relief from the pain associated with her cancer. We should reach out with the grace of Christ and the wisdom of God. The efforts of Kara Tippets who knows Maynard’s situation much better than most are particularly praiseworthy. But, we cannot support her decision to end her life in this way. We cannot support it even as we support her because it runs directly counter to everything we know and understand about the nature and character of our God. It also betrays a profoundly tragic and mistaken understanding of the place of suffering and pain in this world and of what it means to die well. Exploring those more, however, will take another blog.