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.”