Cherishing Life, Accepting Death

In 2015, the theme for Day for Life looked at the Catholic Church’s Guide to End of Life Decisions.

This is the message that was released to mark the day.

“How great a lie …to make people think that lives affected by grave illness are not worth living!”
Pope Francis

Kathleen, a much-loved grandmother, collapsed at home one Saturday morning and was rushed to hospital. Early signs pointed towards a stroke. The doctors talked about the next twenty-four hours being critical; it seemed like Kathleen might not even survive. The priest was called and Kathleen received the anointing of the sick. Doctors were talking about brain damage and whether interventions might be possible. Suddenly the family was faced with big questions. What would Kathleen want and how could the Church help guide any decisions? How do we accept death when it comes and cherish life while we can?

There have been remarkable medical and technological advances so that the chronically ill can receive life-saving treatments. We can be truly thankful for such advances. And yet at some time or other we will all die. These same advances have led to more complex decision making about appropriate treatment.

At the end of life, there are two thoughts which can help guide us all:

The first is that we love life. Every person is loved by God and every life is a precious gift never to be destroyed or neglected. It is wrong to hasten or bring about death. God will call us in his good time.

The second is that we accept death. This means there is no obligation to pursue medical treatment when it no longer has any effect or, indeed, harms the patient, or where the risks or burdens of the treatment outweigh the likely benefits.

We need to prepare to face life-threatening crises. Ideally these difficult and important decisions need to be faced with others – our spouse, our siblings, our extended family members. The family, after all, should be the privileged place where mutual support and understanding occurs.

Some times difficult decisions need to be made and the views of family and experts are needed. But in such situations these two questions can guide us: “is this decision loving life?” and “is this decision accepting the inevitability of death?”

Depending on the situation we should seek ways to answer yes to both, as life itself is a gift from God, and death but the gateway to new life with Him.

Teaching

Here’s a digest of what the Catholic Church teaches with regard to end of life decisions.

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Respect for the life of every person
Respecting life means that every person must be valued for as long as they live. Every person is loved by God and every life is a precious gift never to be destroyed or neglected. It is wrong to hasten or bring about death. God will call us in his good time.

Life need not be preserved at all costs
Due respect for my life is compatible with the judgment, ‘this medical treatment is no longer worthwhile’, either because such treatment no longer serves its purpose (is futile), or because it is overly burdensome, dangerous, or disproportionate to the expected outcome: there is no obligation to accept ‘over-zealous’ treatment, traditionally called ‘extraordinary’ by the Church.

Making a medically informed decision
Before deciding the right thing to do, I need to know what is wrong with me, or my loved-one, what is likely to happen and what might be the benefits and risks of different treatments. It is important to listen to the doctors but also to ask questions. I need to make sure that doctors or nurses are not making assumptions about my condition or about what I would want. If I am not sure about this I can ask for a second opinion by a different doctor.

The burdens of treatment are relative to the person
Judgments about what counts as excessively burdensome are relative to my sensitivities, sensibilities, physical condition and situation. The decisions should be made me if I am competent or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for me. Doctors should always respect my reasonable decisions and my legitimate interests.

Caring and accepting care
I may not be conscious or I may be confused when decisions need to be made about my care. This is why it is good to speak to those close to us about what we would want. It is important not to give into the temptation that others would be better off without us. We should allow them to show their love and care for us.

Food and water are basic needs
Some forms of treatment or care are more basic than others. In particular the giving and accepting of food and drink, by tube if necessary, is part of ordinary care for ourselves and hospitality to others. We should not be denied food or drink except when they are no longer effective in sustaining life.

Acceptance of death is part of Christian hope in the resurrection from the dead
For the Christian, the moment of death is the time when God comes to take us home. If we die accepting God’s mercy then we can look forward to the resurrection, reunion with those who have gone before, and unimaginable joy.