By: Sr. Clare Hunter
“I don’t want to be a burden, so I tell my family to just pull the plug!” I wince when I hear that comment, which is pretty much every time I give a talk or have a conversation about end-of-life issues. The idea of being incapacitated terrifies each of us. How many of us have observed a situation where a person has lost all sense of reality and awareness, must be fed, bathed, moved or helped in such ways that we shudder at the utter loss of autonomy? We gasp the prayer: “Don’t let that happen to me!”
“It is not right!” should be our response to suffering. It is a result of the Fall, and our hearts remember there was an original plan which did not include death and pain. In God’s mercy, our sin was redeemed through Jesus Christ, forever changing the role that suffering must take in our own salvation. As John Paul II states in the encyclical Salvifici doloris, “questions [about suffering] are difficult, when an individual puts them to another individual…..as also when man puts them to God.” Our questioning, or conversation with God, can be the deepest of prayers and transformation as we know an intimate imitation of the Crucified Christ. How often do we let suffering become the source of rejection and divorce from God?
Aging, physical pain and death are inescapable, no matter how hard we try to eliminate them! Each of us knows the deep longing to be loved and treated with dignity. We long to be understood and to be supported, especially in our most vulnerable moments. Salvifici doloris reminds us “the world of suffering possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny, or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering.” Isn’t that what we really want to hear? To know that there will be someone who will walk with us in our suffering, who will understand and show us true compassion. How tragic when we hear words like: “burden,” “expendable,” “quality of life,” “vegetative,” “pull the plug.”
We want black-and-white answers to our questions about end-of-life issues. I am sorry, but that is impossible. Each and every human body and medical situation is unique and unrepeatable. There are, however, wonderful teachings held by the Catholic Church to aid us in these situations so that the human body will be treated with dignity and the person prepared to meet God.
The Dioceses of Arlington and Richmond have prepared a helpful Question and Answer pamphlet, as well as an Advance Medical Directive booklet to aid the faithful in making healthcare decisions. I encourage adults, of all ages, to read and fill out an Advance Medical Directive. This gives us the opportunity to appoint a healthcare agent in the event that we are unable to make our own decisions in the event of illness. Each parish in the Arlington Diocese has both the booklet and pamphlet. They can also be filled out on-line at: Advance Medical Directive. Let us not miss the opportunity to be prepared in our most vulnerable time.