The Dignity of a Natural Death

Living with someone with Alzheimer’s is terribly difficult. It is a cruel disease during which a person is slowly taken away, mentally and physically. Most people dread having to cope with watching a loved one decline or worse, to experience it ourselves. We don’t know why God allows such suffering, but clearly He does, and we do see that He can bring good things out of bad. I have known spouses and adult children who have been amazing in their steadfastness and faith.

Earlier this week, a 60 year old woman with Alzheimer’s was smothered in her hospital bed. Her husband has been arrested. According to news reports, her family says that she requested doctor-assisted death but was refused, implying that this was done to fulfill her desire to die. Doctor-assisted suicide is legal here but there are some restrictions; among them, the patient must be competent at the time of making the request and also at the time that it takes place. This patient was not competent at the time of her death and may not have been when she allegedly made the request.

It’s a sad story. No one wants to see her husband go to prison for life – technically possible but highly unlikely, even if convicted. The media and the public are very sympathetic. Their response is, of course, that the law needs changing, that it’s too restrictive. And it will continue to be too restrictive until, like the abortion law, there are no restrictions at all. Those of us of a certain age have been there, seen that. As Wesley Smith wrote on National Review Online, “Now, these supposedly vital protections — in actuality, they are loosey-goosey — are increasingly seen instead as ‘hurdles’ that interfere with the right to be made dead.”

There was a case in the Netherlands recently – the Netherlands being farther down this road than we are so far – where a woman with dementia was killed on demand. Over at the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition blog, Alex Schadenberg quotes the following report:

Guilia Crouch stated in her report in the Mail online:

The doctor secretly placed a soporific in her coffee to calm her, and then had started to give her a lethal injection.

Yet while injecting the woman she woke up, and fought the doctor. The paperwork showed that the only way the doctor could complete the injection was by getting family members to help restrain her.

It (the paperwork) also revealed that the patient said several times ‘I don’t want to die’ in the days before she was put to death, and that the doctor had not spoken to her about what was planned because she did not want to cause unnecessary extra distress. She also did not tell her about what was in her coffee as it was also likely to cause further disruptions to the planned euthanasia process.

The Review Committee concluded that the doctor ‘has crossed the line’ by giving her the first sleeping medicine, and also should have stopped when the woman resisted.

Despite this, the doctor was acquitted.

The soft talk about “death with dignity” or “mercy killing” is a lie. There is nothing merciful or dignified about suicide or homicide. True mercy is when family or friends attend their loved one as they endure their illness and incapacity. It is a privilege to be able to accompany them as they make their final journey. True mercy is to give ourselves fully and the harder it is, the greater the reward. Our message to our loved one is that they are loved and valued for their very selves, not for what they give back to us, nor for their appreciation of what we do for them.

It reminds me of what is called the “dark night of the soul.” That is when holy people experience an emptiness or loneliness for God, not feeling His closeness, even though they believe in Him. They power through, sometimes for years, sustained by their faith and love, despite not getting any “feedback.” It is very difficult, and yet, it seems, a privilege of saints. I think that’s true when we care for our parents or spouses who are “gone” in their dementia and we continue to actively love them. It is a deeper love, a transformative love. It’s not something we wish for, but whenever we follow God’s will there is no end to His grace.

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