Dying Easily

Cemetary with tombstones in moonlight We just had the traumatic experience of having to have our pet dog euthanized. Lady had been a part of our family for the past 15 years, and was unquestionably the best behaved dog that we have ever had. In a matter of minutes, she quietly slipped into death from an injection from her vet. I arrived home somewhat shaken from the experience, and in considerable pain from the loss of "man's best friend" and one of the first pieces of mail I opened was a letter from the Death With Dignity Alliance (e-mail: info@dwda.org) asking for support to allow what I had just done for my dog to be done to human beings. The letter is promoting "painless death" and identifies the enemy of their movement to be "the hierarchy of authoritarian churches, the so called `Right to Lifers,' and the extremist right wing" who are ".imposing their view of `morality' on the rest of us."

Patient in hospital bed It is unfortunate that this organization has chosen to assume an anti-religion position to promote its message. There is a need for all of us to look at the questions that have been produced by our medical technology and search for solutions that can reduce the pain and suffering that many people have to endure with cancer and other wasting diseases. In the past, people died relatively quickly with diseases that today are controlled--sometimes for decades. My wife has been an insulin dependent diabetic for over 50 years, and has taken something in the ball park of 75,000 shots of insulin during that time. In the days of Solomon, such a person would have died in a matter of weeks. Her quality of life so far has been excellent, and none of us would want to go backward in man's medical advancement and the quality of life it can afford. On the other hand, people can live a very long time powered by machines that allow their biological system to function, but bring no quality of life and cause enormous amounts of pain. This issue is going to get larger and more critical as the years go by because more and more extreme medical procedures are becoming available. Mechanical hearts, kidneys, pancreases, and lungs are already being used and the medical establishment is getting better and better at using these devices. There is a need for more information and help in this area of discussion because more and more of us are facing the issue of how to die for ourselves and for our loved ones. We certainly do not pretend to know all the answers in this subject area, but there are some points that we feel need to be made that may be helpful to our readers and hopefully will be of assistance to all of us as we face this issue.

There Are More Than Two Options

Programs like Death with Dignity Alliance suggest to us that there are only two options when a person is terminally ill--a long and terrible death with massive amounts of pain, or a physician-assisted death that is easy and painless. The fact of the matter is that a terminally ill patient can have help in conquering the pain, and the potential for the elimination of the pain is there. In Solomon's time alcohol was used in this way, and Solomon tell us "It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine: nor for princes strong drink: lest they drink, and forget the law, and pervert the judgment of any of the afflicted. Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more" (Proverbs 31:4-7). Today we have everything from electronarcosis in which electronic signals can be used to block and stop pain to chemical pain relievers. If the medical establishment applied itself to this issue in the same way it has to extending life, the pain issue could be largely solved without euthanasia being the only way to stop the pain of terminal illness. The removal and control of pain that allows people to continue to function in meaningful and quality ways is another option that is already available to some extent and should get to be a more workable option in the future.

Death Involves More Than the Individual

So many times when someone dies, the people around them focus on that individual while the person dying is focusing on someone else. I have seen a parent who realized they were near death and was trying desperately to get a message to a spouse, son, or daughter that they felt was of great importance. As Jesus hung on the cross, one of the very last things He did was to commission John to take care of His mother and treat her as His own mother (John 19:25-27). In death there are always earthly matters that the dying have a right and a need to take care of. It can be physical things or more commonly it can be emotional and spiritual things.

Leaving this earth means that you have no more opportunities to apologize for the past. Any need for forgiveness must be taken care of before one leaves this physical existence. You no longer are able to tell someone about those spiritual messages that you know are important. This is a two-way street because those left behind often have the same things that need to be said to the one dying, and one of the saddest things I have ever observed is a young man or woman who desperately wants to tell a dying father or mother how much they love them, but not be able to do so.

The finality of death makes it especially important that all loose ends are taken care of, and many times we do not know what ends are out there or how to take care of them. Ending a life that could resolve these kinds of things before they are taken care of is unfair to the living and can prevent the dying from being able to die at peace with the Lord, with family and with friends in the world.

Life Never Loses Its Potential to Be Meaningful

Proponents of euthanasia have a tendency to evaluate the meaningfulness of life entirely in terms of pain. In no way do I want to minimize how bad pain can be or how important it is to control pain, but as we said in our first point, medical science has the tools to reduce pain of all situations to a manageable or nonexistent level. The fact is, however, that there is never a time in one's life when meaningful things cannot be done. I have known cancer patients who have begun a ministry to other cancer patients when they realized what they were going through and how isolated a person can feel when extreme treatment techniques are being applied to a person. The book A Whiner's Guide to Chemotherapy which we make available through this program points out clearly how much a person can relate to others when they have been through what the other person is dealing with. Cancer patients can carry on an incredible work with people also struggling with cancer. Heart patients can uniquely help other heart patients. Whatever has happened in your life can be a ministry to reach out to others. When a person is in the last stages of a chronic health problem and obviously has very little time left, they can have a huge impact on the lives of others.

I have known parents and grandparents who were able to motivate their children or grandchildren to great achievements by showing them the courage and strength that they possess to deal with their disease, and then to encourage the child to better themselves through education or whatever challenge the child is facing. I remember a grandmother I knew who had a child who was about to give up on college. The grandmother went to the child and told her that she was going to fight to stay alive to see the child graduate. Every few days the grandparent would call to encourage and support the child, and sure enough the child graduated and the grandparent proudly attended the commencement. Never give up on the Lord's ability to find meaningful things that you can do with whatever situation you find yourself in life.

The Slippery Slope Problem

The other factor that is an issue in the question of how to die easily is the problem of death becoming too easy and becoming involuntary. In Holland (where euthanasia has been an accepted medical practice for some time), there are horror stories about doctors who decided that the patient was ready for a lethal injection without telling the patient or their family. The question of how to avoid such abuse is very difficult. All of us have heard horror stories of accidents in American hospitals where miscommunication or honest mistakes resulted in tragedy. Slippery slope arguments are never conclusive, but they do point out a risk and do have to be considered.

Those who promote the "Dying Easy" programs have a good point and may be very honest in just wanting to stop needless suffering, and medically-prolonged life when quality of life is no longer there, but there are numerous oversimplifications in their arguments. The point where God receives a person's spirit is not even within man's capacity to determine, and arbitrarily trying to force it puts man in an area where he cannot make infallible decisions. The time and energy being put into these kinds of things should be directed toward relieving pain and providing quality meaningful outlets for the energies available at the end of life. 

--John N. Clayton

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