Words Fail Me

Words fail me quite often, which is odd, in a way, for someone whose whole life is bound up in service of the Word and, indeed, words. Yesterday several events occurred which placed great strain on my ability to think and articulate. Those of you who have followed Tony Nicklinson’s efforts to ensure that anyone helping him to die should not be liable to prosecution must have spent a few minutes yesterday wondering what he felt like when the decision went against him. How does one respond? How can one respond? There is a double obligation: to uphold the truth and to show compassion and care. Sometimes, one just feels helpless, as I admit I did. The question is painful because it concerns a person with thoughts and feelings, not an abstraction.

I believe that the decision not to allow Mr Nicklinson’s suit was the right one, for legal as well as moral reasons (it would change the law on murder for a start, allowing a right to kill rather than a right to die), but that does nothing to answer the further important question which is how we, as a society and as individuals, help/support/comfort him and those who find themselves in a similar situation.

Many years ago I became involved in the Life movement. I did so because the organization was very clear that opposition to abortion had to be accompanied by an effort to provide a real alternative. As a result, I spent much of my time raising money for, or doing practical tasks for, the ‘safe houses’ which sheltered those who might otherwise have had abortions. It would be an invasion of the Nicklinsons’ privacy to suggest anything along the same lines in his case, but those of us who believe that we do not have the right to take our own life, or to ask another to end it for us, cannot simply say, the decision was the right one, and turn to another topic. There will be more attempts to change the law. They must be resisted, but at the same time we must also address the question Tony Nicklinson has posed about the suffering he endures. The Church does not demand that we use extraordinary means to preserve life, but who is to make the decision about what constitutes extraordinary means, how are we to respond when someone says his life has become unbearable? I am sure I am not alone when I say that I shall be thinking and praying about this for days to come.

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12 thoughts on “Words Fail Me”

  1. This reminds me of the death of Pope John Paul II. He refused to go back to hospital for treatment and asked to be allowed to die. Like you said, there is a difference between being allowed to die and killing someone.

  2. Sister, agreed with bells on!!

    I find the whole topic difficult and feel helpless in the face of it and the questions that it poses.

    But, I wonder if there are double standards being applied by the Medical profession, as far as assisted death is concerned, when there is evidence that their withholding of treatment can allow someone to die through what amounts in my view to neglect.

    When my late Father in Law fell ill, he suffered Kidney Failure. Due to his age, he was refused dialysis, effectively giving him a death sentence.

    As he was in a Coma, he was unable to speak for himself, but my spouse and I knew that he had a strong will for life – our views were not supported during a case conference and we were told to prepare ourselves for his death.

    They took the view that his case was hopeless, and that it would be a waste of resources to transport him to a hospital that could provide dialysis. He regained consciousness and lived for a further two weeks, during which time his body was unable to process the wastes causing enormous suffering for him and for his children, who could see his deterioration, hour by hour.

    The doctors gave palliative care with drugs, which kept him comatose most of those two weeks. We were unable to really say good bye and know that he was at peace with what was happening to him.

    The doctors said that he was to weak to go home to die? Which was probably correct, but going home might have hastened his death, but he would have been at home with his family.

    In the end, he did in the middle of the night and we got the call at 4am to tell us so.

    We are now quite cynical about the way that medical staff view the elderly – would they have treated a young child in the way they treated my father in law. I very much doubt it.

    This is a whole field of medical ethics which bears closer examination.

    • First of all, U.K. Viewier, allow me to say how sorry I am to hear of the anguish you and your family went through during your father-in-law’s last weeks. As one who has worked in the medical profession (nursing) I can picture the scenario as it unfolded. If it is any comfort to you and yours I would offer the following: in the case of kidney failure, it is possible to measure and determine whether there remains sufficient function wherein dialysis would offer an extension of life. If not, it is a burden on the patient to put them through it. Dialysis is not a simple hook up and rinse – many if not most patients feel quite unwell and have many side effects, it is a difficult business best offered to robust individuals. With severe kidney failure a patient in a coma is usually expected to pass away naturally. A compassionate physician who was able to express himself respectfully might not have suggested it wasn’t worth the effort due to age and dollars. Rather, dialysis might not have been worth the effort due to the expected outcome and the amount of pain, etc., dialysis would have caused, in other words, it might not have given him the extension of life you prayed for. The whole set-up of your father-in-law’s last weeks screams disrespect for the dignity of the person(s) involved.

      • Jean, thanks. Perhaps it’s something that is still raw after a couple of years. Grief can hit through things, even when we think we’ve gotten over it. This situation is so close to home that I think it brought it out.

        Airing it is helpful and I can now deal with it.

        • Agreed – grief does have a way of resurfacing and causing us to feel the pain all over again. It can be difficult to offer it up to God over and over, but really, that’s all we can do, trusting that we are heard and loved and will see our friends and family again when it’s our turn. Some medical professionals can be brutally blunt and cold, whether it’s their own way of coping I can’t say, but we do know there are people who are callous and lack empathy. Their time will come, God help them when the tables are turned. I also know I myself have refused/been unable to hear the truth of a devastating situation, anger welling up as a psychological self-defense mechanism. As you say, all part of being human, we are His creation, best to take it all to Him in prayer, letting go with trust. I will remember you and yours on my beads this evening.

  3. Thinking fails me, and like UK Viewer, I feel helpless in the face of this and the questions it poses.
    Thank you for reminding me of the role of prayer when words, deeds and thinking fail.

  4. A refreshingly balanced treatment of a very difficult question. Holding the line at protecting life in this most difficult circumstance while expressing great sensitivity, understanding and compassion for the real suffering of the person at the center of all this, leaves us in prayerful silence and pondering.

    There was a time when suffering was given meaning, offered in prayer for others. This is a lot to ask of anyone , I know, but perhaps the sense that suffering is pointless, without any meaning or purpose, makes ‘killing’ a thing some actually consider, perhaps as a lesser of evils… Death being preferred to meaningless suffering.

    But is suffering without meaning? Or the question is better posed as, ‘What is the meaning of human suffering?’. What are its spiritual dimensions?

  5. I have been on both sides of Sister’s discussion in the position of daughter. In the ’50’s my mother was encouraged by doctors to abort me, but my Catholic father would have none of it, believing abortion to be murder. Everything turned out just fine, no one’s life was put on the line despite medical opinion to the contrary. Twenty six years later my 78 year old father was hospitalized and my mother referred the surgeon’s call to me, in summary he would bleed out if not operated upon, but if operated upon might end up a “vegetable”. My mother preferred that he be allowed to die, assuming all was hopeless. Knowing my father’s respect and drive for life I pushed for surgery. After many hours in OR and weeks in recovery, he surmounted all expectations and lived to the age of 84, enjoying a good quality of life.

    In our faith we are taught a theology of suffering, that it is not a wasted experience if offered up alongside Christ’s sacrifice. It may be a foreign concept to those of other denominations whose tenets are very different than our own, but in our belief there is a place for prayers for the dead, the offering of all manner of suffering in reparation for sin, the sanctity of life. God alone has the right to choose who lives and who dies.

    There are often situations wherein the treatment of a patient’s condition is unreasonable given the prognosis, and may in fact prolong suffering. In such cases we are permitted to allow nature to take its course, but always with a view to providing maximum pain control and other palliative measures to relieve suffering.

    None of us will live forever on Earth, but there is an eternity awaiting those who believe in Christ’s resurrection. Death is not the worst thing that could happen to us, rather separation from God as a result of making ourselves into little gods.

    • Jean,

      Thank you for a helpful reply. While I’m not now a Catholic, I was raised and educated as one. So, I understand completely when you speak of suffering being offered and laid at the foot of the cross. And, as an Anglican, we share that as well.

      Sometimes we know that the end is coming, but also hope for recovery or respite for our own needs, not necessarily considering the needs of the person who is moving towards the end. We are human with human weaknesses, overcoming them is where prayer comes in.

  6. I do not want to offend in this blog but ….being allowed to die or if you like “a living will” is essential for me, when the time comes.
    I don’t think legislation is the answer and in fact has caused many problems for the medical profession. To strive to keep us alive at any cost can’t be humane.

    • There are three important distinctions to be made:
      (1) not permitting extraordinary means of sustaining life, e.g. one can legitimately refuse to be resuscitated and one can argue that taking antibiotics or similar kinds of medicine would or could come under the same heading. So let the pneumonia take its course;
      (2) taking one’s own life, which is what most people mean by the right to die, and which the Catholic Church has always said is wrong — we have no such right;
      (3) what Tony Nicklinson asked for, which was that anyone who administered a lethal dose (since he is unable to medicate himself) should be exempt from prosecution; this, too, the Church has difficulty with, as do many lawyers and medical professionals, because it would confer a right to kill.

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