Death is inevitable yet we instinctively seek to avoid it, especially if we envision a lingering and painful death. The losses and changes associated with the progression of a terminal illness often contribute to psychological and spiritual distress that may lead to despair. The care available today, though, including both compassionate spiritual support as well as effective pain management, ensures that no one need die a painful death, or resort to suicide to avoid such an end.
Sadly, throughout our country and here in our area, an effort is being made to remove current protections and legalize doctor-prescribed suicide. Underlying this legislative push is a movement that plays upon the despair and fear often associated with serious illness and the end of life, and implies that those who are sick or disabled somehow have lost so much human dignity and worth to be thought of as better off dead.
As we look ahead to the World Day of the Sick on February 11, we are reminded that Jesus offers us a fuller vision of life. He taught us to care for and comfort the sick and dying, to value and protect the lives of the elderly, the disabled and other vulnerable members of our community. To do otherwise is to deny the dignity of every person. We encourage the pastoral and medical care of those who are terminally ill in a way that helps them experience the natural progression toward death with dignity, compassion and love – not the desolation of suicide.
For example, around the world, the Missionaries of Charity founded by Blessed Mother Teresa have provided loving care to the sick and dying. Here in the District of Columbia, their Gift of Peace home, since its opening in 1986, has provided residential care for people with considerable nursing needs due to advanced HIV/AIDS, other medical or mental illnesses or advanced age, and who have nowhere else to go. To a culture of ignorance and fear, the sisters brought – and continue to offer – dignity, a loving embrace and the gift of peace in mind and soul.
Society’s response to the sick and vulnerable, who are often burdened with feelings of worthlessness and despair, should not be to confirm these feelings by offering suicide with a lethal dose of pills. Every suicide is a tragedy and already for many years now we have heard of suicide reaching epidemic proportions, with more and more young people, military veterans, celebrities and others afflicted with hopelessness attempting or committing suicide. Whether it is a terminally ill person or a young person suffering from depression, our response should be to draw them away from the edge, to help the vulnerable among us – regardless of their condition or circumstances – with genuine compassion and give them hope, not fear and despair.
At every stage and condition, life is a great gift from God. As darkness threatens our society and culture, we should be as “children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). This calls us to lift up our voices for the protection of every human life, especially the sick and the dying, the disabled, the elderly, those suffering from depression and all those at the margins.