Lorna Dueck is host of Context TV, seen Sundays on Global and Vision TV.
One British Columbia family’s disappointment has opened another chapter in the book our nation is writing on euthanasia, assisted suicide and end-of-life planning. Dead At Noon is the website 85-year-old Gillian Bennett left with her poignant and utilitarian rationale for why she took her life. Her suicide letter contains a compelling argument for changing our health-care system’s focus from caring for the elderly as they decline to hastening their ability to die.
Ms. Bennett seems like a wonderful person, as we learn from a video made by the Vancouver Sun. The grief of her husband and two children is profound. We learn how the retired psychotherapist took whisky and barbiturates at a beautiful vista near her home, lay down and died within minutes. “I very much wished that it had been legal for me to help her,” her husband says.
In a cogently argued letter, Ms. Bennett tells us how she was three years into a dementia diagnosis, and wanted out before she could “no longer assess [her] situation.” She wanted her actions to be political, an activist death to help us address the “arithmetic” of our aging population.
“As we, the elderly, undergo manifold operations and become gaga while taking up a hospital bed, our grandchildren’s schooling, their educational, athletic and cultural opportunities, will be squeezed dry,” the letter says.
Ms. Bennett’s letter ends with a challenge for all of us to make living wills by the age of 50, and for three “outsized institutions” – medicine, law and religion – to get in gear with transformative thinking to assist in killing people.
I know it’s bad taste to summarize it so, but as I see it, that’s the ethic we are crossing in this debate.
What about this request for “the Church,” as Ms. Bennett’s note describes it? The thinking the greater Christian Church is working on is this: How can it better offer its resources for the dying?
Dealing with suffering and death is front-line work for Christian clergy and laity, activity that is based in the Bible, where we are reminded that “our bodies now disappoint us.” That insight is but a sound bite from a larger understanding Christianity is struggling to align with the complex end-of-life debate.
A secularist may try to take death captive by pre-empting it, arranging it on one’s own terms. For a Christian, God has already taken death captive through the death of Jesus, a historic fact in our faith that is both metaphor for purpose in suffering, and fact for transformation after death and the reality of heaven.
The acceptance of what Christ means for the human race and our deaths is a long education, tested in the experiences of life, where we learn we belong to Another, and to each other. Nothing in that dark night is able to separate us from God’s love – not pain, dementia or death.
We are vulnerable and flawed as we face death. Palliative-care workers have told me that Christians face the fear of the dark night no differently than secularists. Clergy have told me that sitting at a death bed with a Christian is the most beautiful work they engage in, because they experience God’s presence and care mediated through people, medicine and hospice. They also encounter the Holy as God ushers life from one reality to the next.
There are many differing Canadian views on dying, and while Canadians disagree on what makes for a good death, the Church will try to find a voice to be with the suffering and to shape our response to it. Neither science nor law alone will be able to navigate all the human body’s needs for the end of life.