The following piece by Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs is a further discussion of a topic I shared about here and here. In it, she poses the question about whether a person should have a choice to end one’s suffering from life, To me, this is a loaded question. I am not getting into what I believe is right or wrong, but I would love to engage one question; what is the suffering we are considering? Many of us feel we suffer even when objectively everything should be good. I think it is very challenging ethically to discuss these existential issues when it comes to the value of living. I am not suggesting we prolong life just for the sake of prolonging life, but we should be careful with how we define certain terms, because one person’s suffering might be another person’s penance, as most religious traditions discuss.
In my work in hospice, I recall people who felt they needed to suffer now for the peace of eternal life. While it sometimes seems that this need can be exaggerated, we must realize that this is part of the person’s cultural and religious milieu, and as such we need to walk with the person in their suffering as opposed to trying to convince the person that they shouldn’t suffer. Yet again, however, we first need to understand what suffering means to this person.
Is there such a thing as “suffering from life”? This phrase caught my attention when reading a NY Times article about two weeks ago. It was entitled “Push for the Right to Die Grows in the Netherlands,” and is about expanding euthanasia in the Netherlands. There is a group that believes that anyone over the age of 70 should have the right to an assisted death because, “We think old people can suffer from life. Medical technology is so advanced that people live longer and longer, and sometimes they say ‘enough is enough.'” So, asserts Dr. Petra de Jong, a Dutch pulmonologist, who is now the head of the euthanasia advocacy group Right to Die-NL. According to the Times article, the Royal Dutch Medical Association opposes euthanasia for those “suffering from life.” However, should someone voice this wish, the doctor can explain to a patient how to deny him or herself food and drink, and then the doctor can assist with any suffering that entails from someone choosing this course toward death.
I wonder if the story of Charles and Adrienne Snelling would fall in this category. The Snellings had been married for more than 55 years. Six years ago, Mrs. Snelling was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Mr. Snelling chose to take care of his wife since her diagnosis, writing in an essay in December of 2011, “We continue to make a life together, living together in the full sense of the word; going about our life, hand in hand, with everyone lending a hand, as though nothing was wrong at all.” On Thursday, March 29, he took not only his wife’s life, but his own as well. Was Mr. Snelling “suffering from life”? Because they were going about life “as though nothing was wrong at all,” could that have been just too hard for Mr. Snelling who loved his wife so much and felt that after her taking care of him for 55 years, it was “reciprocity” that he take care of her?
Working as a hospital chaplain, I have experienced people who have told me that they will be dead by the next day. I was initially skeptical of their “forecast” of their death, but over the years, have come to appreciate the insight that these people had, because in all but one case, the person did die by the next day. Of course, they were sick and were on a dying trajectory, but I often wonder if they had had enough and were “suffering from life” in a different way and wanted to be beyond the machines, and the needle sticks and the pain, be it physical or psychic.
Do you think that there is such a thing as “suffering from life”? Do you think that people should be able to make their own decision as to whether or not to end their life? And should doctors “assist” by helping to alleviate the symptoms when someone chooses to not eat and drink because they are “suffering from life”?
And, for those who are Christian, where does your faith come into this concept of “suffering from life”?