Loving life, befriending death

Canadian Mennonites explore end-of-life issues

January 6, 2016 | Web First
Sherri Martin-Carman | Special to Canadian Mennonite

“The ability to keep people alive longer has created new ethical questions around deciding to die. This has, in ways, driven the conversation around euthanasia and assisted suicide.”

Paul Chamberlain spoke these words in his opening address at the Canadian Mennonite Health Assembly, which met in Waterloo in October 2015.

The annual conference, entitled “Loving life, befriending death,” addressed the theme of physician-assisted suicide (PAS), which the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled will no longer be illegal in certain situations as of February 6, 2016. The court invited federal and provincial legislation to be crafted in response.

The gathering wove together lectures about ethics, theology and biblical teaching; workshop topics ranging from ethics and policy-writing to spiritual and hands-on end-of-life care. Contemplative worship helped participants reflect on resurrection hope in Jesus that motivates Christians to live and love fully while acknowledging that death is not our final end.

In his lecture, “Weep with Those Who Weep: Suffering, Empathy and the Vital Function of Lament,” Derek Suderman encouraged healthcare providers in Christian agencies to reclaim the language of lament, as its goal is not just to complain but to call on God to re-establish shalom or holistic well-being. Using examples from Job, who faced immense suffering, Suderman, who teaches religious studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, highlighted the vital need within the Christian community for empathetic listening and weeping alongside those who lament, despite the profound discomfort it causes.

In response, a participant aptly noted, “If we say we don’t want a person to get out of life quickly [through PAS], then our task will be to stay with them slowly.”

This topic was relevant for a faith-based long-term care and retirement community in which a resident living with chronic pain and a terminal illness took a vacation to Switzerland to visit family. However, unbeknownst to the staff or the resident’s family—until he arrived—his purpose for travel was to end his life in a country with legalized physician-assisted suicide. Panel members from the staff and family shared about the impact on their lives and on the community in this situation, even while recognizing that living with chronic suffering over many years can be extremely difficult to endure by the individual, the family and the care-providing community.

Former philosophy professor Elmer Thiessen, a member of Waterloo North Mennonite Church, challenged listeners to rethink their definition of “dying with dignity,” which is often the reason cited for supporting PAS, and advocated that Christians ought to reclaim a belief in dying with dignity. Thiessen suggested that loving life means accepting that pain and suffering are part of life. Thus, there is dignity in suffering and dying itself, as our dignity comes as a gift from God as we are loved by God. His comments fit well with the conference’s theme hymn by Fred Kaan, “Today I Live,” which carried the prayer, “Lord, give me faith for living and for dying.”

The Canadian Mennonite Health Assembly intends to meet again in October 2016, in Steinbach Man., for a follow-up conference on the theme of “Being places of refuge for those who are dying,” as its members ponder where Canadian faith-based health-care organizations will be in their understanding about PAS.

Videos of some of the presentations are available here.

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"Thus, there is dignity in suffering and dying itself, as our dignity comes as a gift from God as we are loved by God." Is it really that simple? So we can stop the chemo and radiation after a five-year struggle like Mom did but forgo the morphine at the end to dull the pain? Or take the dose to induce the fog it produces and embrace the confusion that may ensue? Or take a dose that proves to be lethal before the confusion sets in? Perhaps we shouldn't rely on the treatments for a terminal illness at all. But Mom had five more years, albeit there were very hard and difficult times as well in those years. No, this is not a simple issue that can be dealt with with simplistic answers. Given our reliance on modern health care, medicines and treatments I am not sure that there are hard and fast answers.

Let me share another end-of-life story from personal experience. Dad had struggled with a severe heart condition for many (ten almost 11) years. In the end and over the years, all options had been applied and he finally lay in a hospital on life support. The doctor told us there was nothing more that could be done and recommended removing life support. We wondered and asked: how long would it take? We were told a few minutes maybe even an hour or two. Dad's sisters had indicated that they would like to express their love for their brother while there was still warmth in his flesh and the possibility that he could still hear them. They wanted to be by his side in the end but could not however be there until the next day. The final decision came down to me, the middle child. Why me? Well, the next day was my fiftieth birthday--a day that most people greet with great celebration. My family was concerned for me and that my birthday would always be palled by the event if we waited that extra day.

I am sure that there could be Holy Scripture verses to guide me, pearls of godly wisdom to justify pulling the plug sooner than later. Pearls of wisdom that someone who is not in that position could come up with and counsel me with. None of that was to come to me though. What was my decision? Who was I to deny the wishes of my aunts or question their motivation? I chose to embrace the love that they had for their brother and how they wanted to express that love. I chose to wait and I have never regretted that decision. End-of-life decisions are difficult. Let us be careful not to shame the choice taken by the sufferer or the ones that support them. If there is something simple to be said, I say simply: embrace the love of those who surround us and in so doing we also embrace the love of God.

Although I didn't have the privilege of hearing Elmer Thiessen's talk in person, I don't think his comments were an attempt to provide simple answers to complex situations, or shame people who made certain choices in end-of-life care.

It was not my intention to imply that Erwin Thiessen's comments were intended to shame anyone. My comment was a cautionary to others not to do so. It is far too easy to simply use quotes such as the one from Mr. Thiessen in this article, or particular Bible verses lifted from scripture to sanctimoniously support our various opinions on an issue and be judgmental of others positions. I have seen that happen far too often on a variety of discussion topics coming from either side for or against. Personally, I am not certain exactly where I stand on this issue or what position I am most comfortable with. Hence my final statement.

Please note I inadvertently wrote, Erwin Thiessen. To avoid any confusion, that should read Elmer not Erwin.

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