As a resident of Washington, D.C., I have been closely following the campaign to legalize assisted suicide in our nation’s capital.
At the same time, my siblings and I have spent the last two weeks at my mother’s bedside in a hospital intensive care unit in my hometown. For days, I’ve been watching the physicians and nurses tending, with incredible focus and professionalism, to my mother, who is unconscious. No clinical sign has been left unexamined; no potential treatment option left undiscussed. Witnessing all of this has given me a lot to think about.
Such attention to detail; so many resources spent on a single life — and the lives of each of the other critically ill patients in this and so many other hospitals — how can we explain such an intense level of financial and human investment in the sick and elderly?
For me the answer to this question is obvious: Each human life is worth our care and attention because every person has been created in God’s image and likeness and is thus endowed with inviolable dignity and worth. As Pope Benedict XVI often said, “Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary” in God’s plan.
Every human life is sacred, even when the individual is unaware or no longer values life. To those who are advocating for the ability to cut short the lives of the sick and elderly, and to those who express the desire to end life on their own terms, we must offer a heartfelt response: Even if you no longer value your own life, we do. We value your life because you are inherently worthy of love and reverence. There is no need to prove your usefulness or your personal worth; you are valuable simply because you are, and because you are a fellow child of God.
The sick, disabled and elderly play an essential role in our human community, in part, because they draw us together and teach us, through their state of dependence, how to be more loving. This was highlighted by Tracy Grant of the Washington Post, whose reflection about caring for her terminally ill husband went viral several weeks ago.
Grant referred to the time she spent caring for her husband as the best months of her life. Prior to her husband’s illness, she wrote, “I had yet to discover the reason I was put on this earth. During those seven months, I came to understand that whatever else I did in my life, nothing would matter more than this. Even though I really didn’t know how this would end.”
“Some days were more difficult than others,” Grant recalled, “but there were moments of joy, laughter, tenderness in every day — if I was willing to look hard enough. I found I could train myself to see more beauty than bother, to set my internal barometer to be more compassionate than callous. But I also discovered that with each day, my heart and soul grew more open to seeing this beauty than at any other time in my life.”
Grant believes that she “will never again be as good a person” as she was when she cared for her husband. “I am a better person for having been (his) caregiver,” she concluded. “It was his last, best gift to me.”
My siblings and I returned home to share a home-cooked meal dropped off by an old friend. We watched the World Series and talked about all we’ve been through with my mother so far, as well as our own wishes and intentions in such a situation.
If my mother had chosen to check out early, we, her children, would not have these weeks together to shower her with our love and grow up a little more, together. This may be her last, best gift to us.
As you consider your end of life wishes, think twice before you deprive your family members and friends of your last, best gift.
Sister Constance Veit, l.s.p., is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.