Compassion, or "suffering with" another, manifests what is best in us as members of the human family.
Last November a terminally ill woman from California chose to end her life rather than continue enduring what she considered unbearable pain and suffering. She received an unprecedented level of sympathetic media coverage for her decision. Since then we have seen an alarming wave of legislative efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide, or aid in dying, as some call it. So far, in 2015 assisted suicide bills have been introduced in 16 states and the District of Columbia.
This suicide tsunami is deeply disturbing on many levels. First, assisted suicide is a denial of the inviolable dignity of the human person. It betrays our status as children of God and our absolute dependence on him as the master of life and death. It is often a misguided declaration of personal autonomy. But the push for physician-assisted suicide is also a sad commentary on our society's assumptions about community and the true meaning of compassion.
None of us lives as an island. We are never really independent, and this is especially so in the case of serious illness, disability or advanced age. Terminally ill individuals fear unbearable pain and physical incapacitation; but they also fear becoming a burden to others, or even being abandoned.
Whether the terminally ill and disabled consider their lives worth living is really more about us than it is about them. This might seem like a radical assertion, but it begs serious consideration. Palliative care experts note that pain is not merely a physical phenomenon. They refer to "existential distress" and "total pain," which includes physical pain, anxiety, interpersonal conflict and non-acceptance on the part of the sick person and/or caregivers. These experts assert that in most cases the array of physical symptoms and existential distress can be relieved through optimal end-of-life care.
But as a society we have yet to learn the difference between treatment and care. The former is aimed at curing, while the latter seeks to meet the need for basic comfort and support, even when there is no hope for a cure. "The request which arises from the human heart in the supreme confrontation with suffering and death," St. John Paul II once wrote, "especially when faced with the temptation to give up in utter desperation, is above all a request for companionship, sympathy and support in the time of trial. It is a plea for help to keep on hoping when all human hopes fail" (Evangelium Vitae, n. 67).
St. John Paul II called this accompaniment "the way of love and true mercy." This way of love, which our common humanity calls for, is the opposite of assisted suicide and euthanasia, which John Paul called a "disturbing perversion of mercy." True compassion "leads to sharing another's pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear."
Compassion, or "suffering with" another, manifests what is best in us as members of the human family. As Little Sisters of the Poor we often witness the extraordinary things that happen at the bedside of our dying residents -- striking acts of faith, graces of personal conversion and family reconciliation and exceptional gestures of empathy on the part of our staff members.
This past winter we were hit with a particularly tough strain of the flu. Several residents succumbed to the illness, including a woman who had been caught in the downward spiral of Alzheimer's disease for over 15 years. In his funeral homily the priest, a family friend, suggested that as Alzheimer's progressively robbed her of all that she had enjoyed in life, he had been tempted to wonder, "Why is she still here?"
The priest had a ready response to his own question, though: despite her silence and complete dependence this woman remained among us for so long to bring out the best in her caregivers, to teach us how to love. Father's answer echoed an insight that St. John Paul II had shared 30 years ago in his apostolic letter on human suffering:
"We could say that suffering, which is present under so many different forms in our human world, is also present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one's 'I' on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love which stirs in his heart and actions."
What a mystery -- these suffering souls whose mission it is to call the rest of us to a more noble existence, a more loving and generous gift of self! The graces bestowed on those who care for the ill and dying parallel those received by the sick who recognize God as the Master of Life and entrust themselves to him. One of the reasons why assisted suicide is so tragic is that it would deprive the sick and those who accompany them of these important graces.
In response to the suicide of the young woman from California, a Connecticut woman suffering from the same diagnosis made her viewpoint public. She wrote, "I've become something that I never imagined I would become ... I think -- I'm hoping that I'm becoming a richer, deeper, more appreciative person with compassion for other people. And I've been soaking up the love of my family and friends around me.... I find that my ongoing battle against brain cancer does not define who I am as a person, but instead provides me opportunities to share with others the innate value that every person can bring to society -- whether infirm or able. My brain may be cancerous, but I still have lots to contribute to society ... while my family can daily learn the value of caring for me in my last days with compassion and dignity."
This beautiful woman concludes with a question we would all do well to ponder: "There's lots to learn by tragedy and challenges," she says. "My concern is that when we eliminate from our society all negativity and challenge, is that the best way as a society to help someone through a challenging time? Can't we find them good, compassionate care?"
As a church community and as individuals let us gather around those who are seriously ill, elderly or disabled and accompany them with true compassion. And let's respond "No, Thank You" to measures seeking to legalize physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Sister Constance Veit is communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.