A Catholic Response to Suffering and Euthanasia

I was born into a pro-life family.  My maternal grandmother was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at the age of three in the late 1920’s – a time in which medical advancements and technology were not prevalent, and so her prognosis was grim.  Upon marrying my grandfather, she was told that childbirth would significantly reduce her lifespan.

She chose to give life to my mother, and in turn, my grandmother died at the age of thirty five.  (Thus my personal legacy began decades later.)

Ironically, my maternal grandfather experienced his own passion during the last days of his life on this earth.  For years he had expressed an intense anxiety and fear of dying by suffocation; he made my mother promise that she would not let him die in this way.  Yet this is precisely how he died – his lungs filling with fluid as he gasped for air.  Witnessing his agony was excruciating, at the very least, and appalling and confusing at most.  None of us could understand how a loving and merciful God would permit my grandfather to die the very way in which he feared most.

And yet, through my grandfather’s death, I began to reconcile a deeper meaning of redemptive suffering – a subject about which I had been taught in religion class only briefly and, of course, more extensively in college theology courses.  But until one witnesses a loved one’s suffering, one does not fully grasp the eternal mystery of redemptive suffering.

I walked into my grandpa’s nursing home room the day he died, and I took his hand in mine, stroking it lovingly.  Whispering in his ear as he wavered between lucidity and unconsciousness, I told him, “Grandpa, I’m here, and I’m not going to leave you.  You can let go whenever you are ready.”  In turn, he squeezed my hand, and it was the last means of earthly communication between us.

My eyes welled with tears as I watched him gurgle and gasp.  “Why God, why don’t you just take him?  Just end his misery!”  It was unbearable and stirred anger in me; my concept of a merciful God would never permit this.  I watched as the hospice personnel arrived, one after another – first the social worker, then the chaplain.  They all made eye contact with my grandpa, and they all spoke softly yet without condescension or pity.  They treated him with incredible dignity, right up until his last moments.  It was both beautiful and mysterious in a perplexing way.

My grandfather was made comfortable, but nothing was done to either prolong his life or to end it prematurely.  Everyone in our family was diligent and respectful of the precious gift of his life and of his death; we knew his soul was exclusively in God’s hands.

Shortly before he passed, the associate pastor of his parish arrived to administer the Last Rites.  Grandpa was barely conscious, yet as Fr. Andrew anointed him and, as we prayed in unison, I saw a glimmer, a sparkle in my Grandpa’s eyes, as well as a deep and abiding peace.  He smiled.

I saw the discomfort in Fr. Andrew’s eyes, and his overt body language mimicked what I felt interiorly.  Somehow I learned in that moment that the kind of death ordained to each of us is specific to fulfilling our mission on this earth: perhaps a cleansing of personal sins so as to bypass Purgatory or at least lessen our time there, perhaps as an offering in union with Jesus’ Passion for suffering souls, perhaps as a means of offering back to Christ the love He gave to us on the Cross.

Now that I have an 18-month old daughter who was born with a rare genetic anomaly that requires between twenty and sixty surgeries over the course of her lifetime, I am viewing yet another aspect of redemptive suffering.  When Sarah had her first surgery – a major neuro- and craniofacial surgery (cranial vault reconstruction) at the age of six months – it was yet another pivotal moment in my personal journey of reconciling what appears to be unnecessary pain and agony…of a child.

For some reason, I had come to accept the dignity in which my grandfather died many years before, but when I saw Sarah’s swollen face and the pain in her little eyes, I could not make sense of the madness of this – the suffering of an innocent child, not yet at the age of reason, incapable of committing deliberate sin at this point in her life.  It was incomprehensible.

But the Lord spoke to my heart so gently and lovingly.  I have come to a deep love for the Cross – His and mine.  In this journey of being present to others in their own pain and strife, the only way to make meaning out of the madness of it all is through the Cross.  There is a gift and grace in my suffering and even in my baby daughter’s suffering and pain.  It is not without merit.

When I meditate on Jesus’ Passion, it is so apparent that His total sacrifice was nothing less than love, and so love encompasses the Cross.  We cannot accept the many mysteries of life and human suffering without looking to the Cross, or without carrying our own.

Somehow this truth has become all but forgotten in our modern culture and society.  Somehow the mass consensus is that suffering should be avoided at all costs, and all human pain or anguish is abhorrent.  This is evident in the recent flurry of media and social media coverage of a 29-year-old Oregon woman who has chosen to end her life prematurely due to a devastating diagnosis of a progressive brain tumor.

When I saw the myriad reactions and responses to Ms. Maynard’s decision to end her life so as to avoid the inevitable pain she believed she would endure, my heart was immediately saddened.  I could not fathom how people would call this decision courageous and brave.

I thought again of Jesus.  What if He had chosen to bypass Calvary and instead go straight to the Resurrection?  He could have done this, naturally, being God.  It was clearly a temptation to Him, as He sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and saw the vision of the repercussions of His death.  “If it be possible, Father, let this cup pass from me.  But not as I will, but your will be done.”

There is a great lesson about human suffering when we meditate on this crucial moment in history.  Jesus chose the path of agony as a means of expiating our sins, and He has asked us all to walk with Him, to journey with Him.  “Take up your cross, and follow Me.”

I look at Ms. Maynard’s decision and wonder why she is not allowing God the opportunity to perform a miracle of healing for her life, and if He permits her to suffer and eventually die, then why would she exclude the opportunity for something greater to come from it?  What if there is something amazing that could happen or that she could experience in the time she has on this earth?  What lessons could she learn about herself or, even more, pass on to others?

How can we possibly know the mind and heart of God?  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord, nor are my ways your ways.”  Everything has a purpose, and if we are permitted to suffer – as we all inevitably do in one form or fashion – it is a call to a deeper, more heroic love, a choice to walk with Jesus, to truly grasp the ultimate meaning of life, which is eternal happiness in Heaven.

Our prayer each day should be, “God, please give me the courage to die the type of death you have ordained or permitted for me.”  In this, we are entrusting every fiber of ourselves to an infinite God who knows and loves us far more intimately than we can possibly comprehend in this life.  In the mystery of the Cross, we find meaning, purpose, value, and peace.  We find completion and discover the truth about life and death, Resurrection and eternity.

God alone is the author of human life, and only He has the right to take it, as well.  “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

By

Jeannie Ewing believes the world focuses too much on superficial happiness and then crumbles when sorrow strikes.  Because life is about more than what makes us feel happy, she writes about the hidden value of suffering and even discovering joy in the midst of grief.  As a disability advocate, Jeannie shares her heart as a mom of two girls with special needs in Navigating Deep Waters: Meditations for Caregivers and is the author of From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph , A Sea Without A Shore: Spiritual Reflections for the Brokenhearted, Weary, and Lonely , and Waiting with Purpose: Persevering When God Says “Not Yet.”  Jeannie is a frequent guest on Catholic radio and contributes to several online and print Catholic magazines.   She, her husband, and three daughters live in northern Indiana. For more information, please visit her website lovealonecreates.com.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • JMC

    These thoughts mirror almost exactly some that I endured last week. I’m a livestock farmer, and we recently had a wasting disease run rampant through our small dairy-goat herd, reducing it by half. As we nursed each animal, trying everything we knew to alleviate the disease, mostly to no avail (Out of fourteen sick animals, only four survived), I caught myself wondering what good could come from the suffering of animals, who could not even understand what was happening – much like your daughter, who has not yet reached the age of reason. And almost as soon as I asked myself this question, the answer came to me: Because their suffering makes us suffer, and we, having the use of reason, can make a sacrificial offering of that suffering, both ours and theirs. I know to many people that will not make sense, and I can’t really explain it, but I do sense that there’s something deeper there that’s beyond human understanding. It’s all wrapped up in that single sentence, “Take up your cross and follow Me.”

  • noelfitz

    Thanks for a moving and powerful article.

    We cannot understand God fully.

    There was no need for the Cross and passion, as God is all
    powerful and omnipotent.

    There is nothing that can explain to us why innocent children suffer and die, why humans, created in the image and likeness of God, end up suffering for all eternity in hell. Why angels who are pure spirits rebelled against God and became devils.

    The keys are

    “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, says the Lord, nor are my ways your
    ways”.
    “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

    May I add:

    “But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say
    to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no
    right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use
    and another for ordinary use?”(NRSV Rom. 9:20,21)

    We are commanded to love God, so let’s try to do it, even if
    we cannot understand the mind of God.

  • one comment

    God does not enjoy our suffering nor does He want it, it is the result of original sin and the fall of man from the Grace of God that we suffer pain and so many evils of this world. What God does want is to turn our suffering into Good, to make it our treasure in Heaven, something that is not wasted but is, by the Grace of God, made for our Good and for the Good of others. What Satan would want is to bring us to defeat, but God brings to us victory, even as Jesus Christ Who suffered pain and agony was brought to victory over sin and death and to the resurrection, so we too in our suffering are victorious through Him Who saves us. Praise be to God!!

  • noelfitz

    One comment,

    Thanks!

    I may not have made myself clear, sorry if this was so.

    God knew before humans were created that he would be rejected. He also knew that Satan, and the other fallen angels, would reject him if given the choice. So why did he create these angels and humans if they were to suffer in hell for all eternity.

    If we knew the answer we would be God.

  • niknac

    There is no right way to die. No Catholic way. If you want to lecture someone about inappropriate dying, talk to priests. A lot of them seem to die of lung cancer. Tell them they shouldn’t smoke. They shouldn’t pretend not to be Gay either. Everybody already knows.

  • noelfitz

    Niknac,
    I do not know who you are replying to. I find discussions fruitful, if they are conducted with courtesy, and I find hearing other views helps me clarify my thinking.

    Are you claiming that priests smoke more than others and are you also claiming “a lot of them” are gay?

    However your post answers a question which has interested me. “Is there censorship on views expressed here in CE?”

    It seems to me that often Catholic sites have anti-Catholic views, but CE does not. The posts here are uplifting, positive and encouraging. Now I know views are not censored.

  • pnyikos

    The only way I could reconcile myself to the idea of hell was to take CS Lewis’s _The Great Divorce_ to heart, with its vision of a hell that is unpleasant but is not a place of unremitting torture. Consequently, people freely choose hell over heaven because (as the central thread running through the book goes) they cannot bring themselves to give up certain cherished vices.

    There was a good review recently of this book in Catholic Exchange, originally published online by Crisis:

    http://catholicexchange.com/c-s-lewiss-great-divorce

    http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/civilized-reader-c-s-lewiss-great-divorce

    I contributed similar comments to both, concerning what I think of as the one big weakness of the review: the reviewer’s faulty conclusion that there is no place for art in heaven. What the book actually said was quite different.

  • pnyikos

    Actually there have been a few views that were canceled after being posted, but that is a rarity. A more common, mild form of “censorship” is to hold off on posting views until they have been checked by a moderator. My reply to you of yesterday got this treatment, probably because of the linked websites.

  • noelfitz

    Pnyikos,
    thanks for clarification. At times my posts may be provocative and pose questions that worry me, but always within Catholicism I hope. However if ever I write anything inappropriate please let me know prior to publishing it on our site.

    I get huge encouragement from the posts here and appreciate being part of this community.

    Thanks to all of you and remember me and my family in your prayers.

    Oremus pro invicem.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    That was approved just now. I had to turn up our moderator system after we got a slew of certain anti-semitic comments as well as general spam. I’m still trying to tweak it so that folks aren’t waiting in moderator purgatory, or accidently being labeled as spam, especially folks like you, pnyikos and noelfitz, as I always appreciate the exchanges and questions you bring up.

    If you are ever finding that I’m not moving quick enough to get your comments approved, or you accidently ended up in spamland (along with bankers and medication salesmen) then don’t hesitate to drop me an email at editor@catholicexchange.com

    I don’t get to participate in the conversation as much as I’d like, but I do appreciate it and want to do whatever I can to keep it lively but respectable.

  • Debbie, it is difficult to articulate in words. When God speaks to my heart, it usually occurs in which I have a new insight and am filled with peace and joy. The insight is what I described in the paragraphs following the statement you didn’t understand. 🙂 Hope that offers some clarity!

  • Thanks for sharing, JMC. To anyone else who cares to know, the book, “I Believe in Love” by Fr. Jean C.J. D’Elbee is an excellent treatise on the depth and meaning of the Cross. It’s a book based on the spirituality of St. Therese Lisieux.

  • I always find it interesting that many what I will call staunch Catholics say that we as mere humans should be able to suffer because Christ suffered and died for us. He was God, not a mere human…he just took that form. I do not think that human weakness and wanting to mitigate pain in any way possible is wrong at all. If an individual wants to show everyone that they “are as tough as Christ” and suffer in a horrible way in death, that is their call, but they should not look down on those that do not make that choice.

MENU