What we do with death, how we think about it, and how (or if) we prepare ourselves for it’s inevitability–all these actions spell out what we believe about life. If we do nothing at the death of someone we claim to have loved, it says more about the character of that love than any words we speak.
That’s why I found this article interesting. Published in Relevant, its particularly, ah, relevant to seminary students and those just finished. “My dad is a physician, and we were discussing the monumental costs and challenges that come with end-of-life care,” writes Brian Kiley. “I shared with him some conversations I had observed in classes at my seminary where both students and professors were suggesting that, as Christians, perhaps we need to rethink our approach to end-of-life care.”
Indeed, Christians do, the father responded. ”
My dad, an agnostic, proceeded to tell me about a family friend who, as part of his job as a physician, is often responsible for determining when medical care is “futile” and should be stopped, with patients then transferred to hospice care or unplugged from machines. Often making such decisions requires consulting with family members and sharing their loved one’s fate with them. An unenviable job if there ever was one.
My dad told me that for this physician, who is a Roman Catholic, one people group is consistently the most difficult to deal with when these sorts of medical decisions need to be made.
It’s unfortunate that Christians aren’t being a better witness of the hope they have, Kiley says, a hope in resurrection from death. Atul Gawande, a doctor and writer for The New Yorker, says that the ability to determine when we will allow ourselves to die–as opposed to attempt to use doctors and medicine to delay it–is a cultural capacity that we’ve lost. If Kiley is right, Christians are farthest from regaining it.Yet, it’s something we’ll all need to get a grip on. Gawande writes:
Dying used to be accompanied by a prescribed set of customs. Guides to ars moriendi, the art of dying, were extraordinarily popular; a 1415 medieval Latin text was reprinted in more than a hundred editions across Europe. Reaffirming one’s faith, repenting one’s sins, and letting go of one’s worldly possessions and desires were crucial, and the guides provided families with prayers and questions for the dying in order to put them in the right frame of mind during their final hours. Last words came to hold a particular place of reverence.
These days, swift catastrophic illness is the exception; for most people, death comes only after long medical struggle with an incurable condition—advanced cancer, progressive organ failure (usually the heart, kidney, or liver), or the multiple debilities of very old age. In all such cases, death is certain, but the timing isn’t. So everyone struggles with this uncertainty—with how, and when, to accept that the battle is lost. As for last words, they hardly seem to exist anymore. Technology sustains our organs until we are well past the point of awareness and coherence. Besides, how do you attend to the thoughts and concerns of the dying when medicine has made it almost impossible to be sure who the dying even are? Is someone with terminal cancer, dementia, incurable congestive heart failure dying, exactly?
So, what is the Christian response to this dilemma? Apparently, we’re bad at dying at exactly the moment where we really need to do it well.
I have my thoughts on the subject; what are yours?