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Accepting the Gift of Suffering

God occasionally delivers into our lives someone so rich in grace that it seems to overflow and wash over us. Emma was one such person in my life.

Emma’s death after a five-year battle with cancer earned no mention in the local paper. Emma was a poor immigrant who scrubbed the floors in my home when she wasn’t changing my children’s diapers. Her humility was so mysteriously profound that she could disappear from sight even when she was the only other person in the room.

And yet – or, perhaps, because of these qualities – I am certain a thunderous angels’ chorus shook the gates of heaven during her final moments on earth, because, in death as in life, she emptied herself to God in an indescribably beautiful journey of suffering and grace.

Emma suffered emotionally and spiritually in her final months, and my experience as a hospice physician was of little help in relieving her afflictions. We all know the anguish felt when someone we care deeply about is suffering. A deep-seated aversion to suffering is part of human nature, as is compassion for those who suffer.

These aspects of our nature are even more apparent today, when medical technology has eliminated much of physical suffering that was, for our ancestors, simply a natural part of life and death. While a blessing, these advances cause us to view suffering as an anomaly – something to be eliminated, even in death.

Suffering is the common thread among all reasons given by suicide-minded patients. Support for physician-assisted suicide ultimately stems from the belief that eliminating suffering – physical, psychological, spiritual, or existential – is a higher moral good than sustaining life.

Some of these arguments are spurious, such as the claim that severe pain is commonplace at the end of life (with palliative care, it has become quite uncommon). But denying these understandable fears does nothing to help those who are considering suicide. It simply causes them to feel more isolated.

A 2014 Pew Research poll [1] found that 71 percent of Americans call themselves Christians – nearly identical to the number of Americans supporting physician-assisted suicide [2]. This suggests that a majority of Christians support assisted suicide. So I ask Christians, and especially my fellow Catholics: What does Jesus Christ have to tell us about end-of-life suffering? After all, Christ’s guidance should be all-important to his followers.

John Paul II near the end, January 2005

Our Christian faith ultimately rests on Christ’s Passion. If Christ means anything, he is first and foremost the God-man who suffered to redeem us from sin. The Passion is not just what Christ did, but who he is.

Supporters of physician-assisted suicide often argue that a lingering death is undignified. Before accepting this claim, take a moment to picture in your mind the details of Christ’s Passion. If a suffering death is undignified, then Christ’s was the most undignified of all. Why did Christ or his Father not put a quick end to the indignity? And to the extent that Christ’s prolonged death caused those standing at the foot of the cross to suffer, perhaps he had a duty to die quickly.

But Christ’s suffering continued until death, which points to another truth. Unlike the trivial conceptions of dignity that we often cling to, true human dignity flows from its fountainhead: Imago Dei. Suffering is not an affront to our dignity. When offered as God asks of us, it is a recognition of our dignity. In his final years, Pope Saint John Paul II lived this truth for all to see.

Death is a messy and sometimes physically-revolting process. I suspect Christ’s death on the cross was far more hideous than the Bible recounts. Yet Christ’s mother stood at the foot of her son’s cross and watched him die in an unspeakably horrific manner. Despite the physical and spiritual agony, both mother and Son accepted their crosses. In this, Christ seems to be speaking to those of us who suffer alongside the dying patient.

Beyond Christ’s Passion, the story of the early Christian Church is, in its human dimension, also a story about suffering. Among the Apostles, all but John were martyred, and countless others in the early Church died for the faith.

I do not pretend to understand a suffering death – how God draws grace from a physical evil. This and many other things remain dense mysteries to me, but one truth seems manifest: Christ does not abide suffering only for himself. He asks us to suffer with him, and his invitation is the heart of our Christian faith.

Emma always smiled, even in her immense suffering – something I cannot imagine being able to do. She accepted Christ’s invitation, and, in her surrender, I was blessed to see the suffering Christ and the light of unspeakable grace. She showed me how one can choose to suffer simply because Christ asks this of us.

In his words and actions, never does Jesus suggest that our life – a gift from God – is ours to destroy. Throughout his revealed Word, evidence to the contrary is overwhelming as few other truths are.

Suicide is not a compassionate release from suffering. Death is not the end. I would not pretend to know how God will weigh anyone’s decisions under the burden of intense suffering, but what he is asking of us at the hour of our death seems clear.

God wants us in heaven with him, and end-of-life-suffering is a dramatic and final call to surrender our will to his. For those like me who are accomplished sinners, that is the greatest gift he could offer to us. I do not suggest it will be easy, but we have the example of Emma and others like her.

Philip Hawley, Jr, MD is a hospice physician and former Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.