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Time of Death

The Things Euthanasia Would Have Stolen from My Dying Mother and Me

Suzanne Marshall

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  • Gay McDaniel

    A thoughtful and heartfelt article. One that needs to be read more than once and to be remembered.

  • metin erdem

    It was November 2009 and saturday. I had seen my father in his bed gone to my work. He was with my mother and seemed very weak. And at 11 am , my mother called me . It was just screaming and crying ..He has gone.........!! I could not talk anything on the phone and I asked my mother to be calm down. How could she be? My father had died near her. I suddenly left work and try to reach my father. He was lying on the floor and his head was still warm. I touched his hairs.I could not say anything and cry . All I thought was how could it be? I went to near my mother she was at hall with our neighbors. We were all in schock and we could not know what we need to do. I needed to organise the funeral. I went to muniicipility to get death report before the funereal. All our neighbors came to us. I talked with them one by one. The funeral was the day after the death. We were lucky that there was a place we can use in Istanbul otherwise you need to take to out of the city. After the funeral , I understood that he is no more with us. During his sickness I was with him always. I tried to take him to the seaside or forest to take fresh air. He was very weak. He did not want anything much. He was happy at his home. He was happy with his family. He did not want more things from this world. All he wanted was to meet God in peace. I started to think that how much it was importand and valuable the time we spent together. I said myself why we could not spent more time together. We could go more often out. But he did not want anything from his family. All he wanted was silence and his family. You understand much better how your parents valuable for you after you lose them. But we need to try to understand eachother and have more time together. He was lucky , he died in peace and at his home with his family.

  • Erna Albertz, Plough.com

    Thank you for reading. Please share your thoughts: Have you experienced the suffering and death of someone close to you? How does the reality of death change one's perspective on life's daily priorities?

My father and sister sat, and I stood against the wall, in the tiny room where my mother shifted on the exam table’s crinkly paper. Mom suffered silently with autoimmune diseases, and one of those monsters, scleroderma, scarred her lungs, providing a foothold for the cancer that was eating her. The oncologist, arms folded across his chest, dropped his hands and moved nearer Mom. He delivered the answer to the question foremost in our minds. “Three to six months.”

There it was, her estimated timeline.

I began regularly traveling the eight hundred miles to my parents’ home. Just days after one visit, Dad called. “You need to come back.” I caught a flight, then drove a rental car as fast as I dared. Mom was still conscious when I arrived, though in mounting pain and unable to speak. Her eyes lifted a fraction, and a hint of a smile passed her lips. The hospice nurse stood ready with morphine and immediately dosed my mother into unconsciousness. No longer could Mom conceal the ravages of her body.

The hospice nurse, leaving until the next day, instructed us how to administer morphine and repeatedly told me that I could not possibly overdose my mother. The nurse’s repetition seemed odd, because surely a person could overdose on morphine, but years passed before I realized the obvious. The nurse had hinted a quicker end to Mom’s misery, a method to speed time for us by cutting off the end of her time.

Allowing death to progress at its own, slow rate benefited me, but what about my mother’s perspective? I am certain that my presence communicated worth to her. In effect I said, “Mom, suffering with you is tearing me up, but you are worth it. You are immeasurably valuable, and I want to spend every last second with you that I can.” 

If I had realized what the nurse meant, would I have ended Mom’s life sooner? I know Christianity teaches that euthanasia is wrong: that it is for God, the giver of life, and not for us to choose when a life should end. But now I also better understand why euthanasia is becoming increasingly accepted and legalized (Washington, Oregon, California, Vermont, and Montana currently allow euthanasia, as do several other countries). To end a person’s suffering seems a mercy. And does the exact time of death really matter that much?

Looking back on those difficult days, there are other reasons I’m glad I didn’t cut short that time with my mother. Sitting with Mom while she struggled for each breath, I inhaled an ocean of air, as if my breathing could help her. If I had hurried the process, my motivation would have been as much for me as for her. But I would have missed out on some powerful truths which that dragging time taught me.

One of these truths, the concreteness of sin and death, imprinted itself on me progressively deeper through the hours I sat with Mom. With each passing minute, my mind insisted, “Death, is wrong, wrong, wrong.” I realized that humankind’s selfish willfulness produced this consequence, this destruction that has wormed its sick ruin into every facet of creation until it wreaks its worst outcome. This truth would not have had as much impact if Mom’s dying process were cut short, nice and tidy-like.

Another truth materialized as I waited for her death: my own mortality. Potent questions confronted me: Will I be ready? How much time do I have, and what am I going to do with it?

Allowing death to progress at its own, slow rate benefited me, despite the distress, but what about my mother’s perspective? I am certain that my presence communicated worth to her. In effect I said, “Mom, suffering with you is tearing me up, but you are worth it. You are immeasurably valuable, and I want to spend every last second with you that I can.” Maybe this reassurance was something she needed to take with her.

What would euthanasia have communicated to her? Would she be grateful and understand that I did it in mercy, or would she interpret my actions as ending my own pain and inconvenience?

We cannot know, with certainty, the exact thoughts inside another person’s mind, especially during death. If life is prematurely extinguished, the dying might be robbed of time needed to process life’s end.

I know I don’t want to suffer at the time of my death, but what if I cannot, until that moment, fully comprehend the finality of leaving earth? What if I change my mind, like people backing out at the top of a zip line? What if time is creeping by for those around my deathbed but is racing for me, and I want to cling to every scrap of life possible?

We are equipped with an intense drive for self-preservation, arguably the most dominant instinct. In the deaths I have witnessed, the dying were trapped in their bodies, too weak to communicate. If they were euthanized, they might silently scream without our knowing, “No! I changed my mind.”

My local newspaper recently told the story of a woman who shot herself in the head. “A lifetime of self-hate from abuse built up” until her will to end her misery overcame her drive for life. She survived her suicide attempt, but lost her vision from the wound. Six years later, she took up dancing, massage therapy, and speaking to school children about “what it is to be blind.” In her words, “God was speaking to me and kept me alive for a reason. I want it to be known I’m alive and that there’s a reason I’m here.”

This woman attempted to manipulate her time of death but failed. Now she lives a life of thankful giving back to society, the same society that had driven her to the point of wanting to click her stopwatch with finality. She thought she knew what she wanted but did not realize her mistake until she pulled the trigger.

Dying is being birthed into another world. We hurry babies’ births and schedule them when most convenient, but does something biologically beneficial to the infant and emotionally cathartic for the mother happen during natural birth? What if the dying process, though also painful, likewise contains benefits for the dying person that are only possible through the passage of time, time for thought enlightened precisely at the precipice of death? Perhaps a person’s entire life flashes before her. We cannot know, with certainty, the exact thoughts inside another person’s mind, especially during death. If life is prematurely extinguished, the dying might be robbed of time needed to process life’s end.

When Jesus hung, suffocating on a cross, he had meaningful exchanges. He entrusted his mother’s care to a disciple. She heard his words, knowing he thought of her in the costly last moments of his life.

As I think back on those last hours with my mother, I consider Jesus’ crucifixion, a most excruciating manner to die. Would it have been better had the guards gone earlier to break Jesus’ legs and ended his suffering?

The day before his execution, Jesus told his disciples that his time was near. He knew that God had designated a specific time for him to die. Did God determine a particular time for my Mom to die? If, as Psalm 139 says, God writes all of the days ordained for us before any of them come to be, then he ordains our last day as well.

When Jesus hung, suffocating on a cross, he had meaningful exchanges. He entrusted his mother’s care to a disciple. This act fulfilled his responsibility, as his mother’s oldest son, to care for her. She heard his words, knowing he thought of her in the costly last moments of his life. The disciple received the love bestowed through the honor of being entrusted with such a sacred responsibility.

In another exchange, Jesus assured a dying criminal that he would enter heaven. This criminal reached out with faith, and Jesus gave him forgiveness, peace, and eternal life.

Jesus completed his last exchange in his final breath. He announced, “It is finished.” These words are the gospel. Jesus lived a sinless life, paying the debt incurred by our sins, debt beyond our capability of repaying. He knew he would rise and wholly destroy that foul worm, death. Would Jesus’ mission be finished if his time were severed by others, instead of his giving up his spirit in his own time?

Pain is horrible, but pain ends. Regret can never be satisfied.

Pain is horrible, but pain ends. Regret can never be satisfied. Taking advantage of other family members’ dozing, I held Mom’s hand and stroked her arm. I whispered that her life inspired me. I told her that her listening without judgment, her quietly giving to people in need, and her not allowing herself to complain moved me to live differently. I wept for forgiveness for being insensitive and not bringing my children more often to visit.

Did Mom regret our communion during those minutes because of pain? If I had ended her life early, I would have regretted it. For one, I could not have spoken those secrets, and would always have wondered what I cut short, what I stole from her in those closing moments of earthly existence. Mostly though, despite what the law and medical profession might allow, I know her life was not mine or anyone else’s to take except God’s alone, who gave it to her.

Perhaps the last natural moments on earth held the clock-ticks that allowed my mother, like Jesus, his mother, his disciple, and the criminal, to extend love, to express faith, to forgive or be forgiven, and to look into God’s face.

Hands
Contributed By

Suzanne Marshall gave up her job as a reference librarian to care for her aging parents. She now writes and teaches in Pensacola, Florida.

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