HUMBOLDT, Sask. — The legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia in Canada is more a sign of a culture dying for lack of love than a nation being open to choice, said Jackie Saretsky at a “Dying Healed” workshop held Nov. 15 - 16 at St. Augustine Parish hall in Humboldt. The sick and the elderly may actually have less choice and feel pressure to end their lives prematurely, said Saretsky, chaplaincy co-ordinator with the Diocese of Saskatoon.
Modern attitudes about independence and success have led many to believe that their lives are worthless or have less value as they age or become ill. People feel they have become burdens to their families or society when they are unable to work or need the assistance of others. Saretsky recalled a conversation with a patient who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was terrified at the thought of needing help to bathe or use the bathroom. The idea of wearing a diaper was humiliating.
“At what point in life do we become undignified?” Saretsky asked.
She is aware of another person who had been recommended for euthanasia after being misdiagnosed. The family was aware of the doctor’s mistake, but did not report it.
The legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide is being interpreted by some as proof that humans have less dignity as they age, contract a terminal illness, or suffer from depression or some other debilitating illness. When conditions seem hopeless, she said, people feel pressure to choose death. The decision to end a life becomes easier to accept when it is softened by terms such as “dying with dignity.” Death may appear to be the only option for people who are vulnerable, isolated, or alone and unable to express their fears and needs.
Physical pain can make life unbearable, especially when the situation seems hopeless. The issue is the pain and how to control it. Health care must be designed to relieve pain and not kill the person. Palliative care is centred on helping ease pain, Saretsky said. Palliative care cannot end all suffering, but it is a way of affirming life. It is only a small percentage of people who suffer from intractable pain, and care is available to help them.
Caregivers can make a tremendous difference for people who are facing life-changing illnesses by offering a loving presence and affirming their dignity and worth, Saretsky said. “Volunteers need to witness to the fact that those with poor physical or mental conditions are wanted, loved, possess dignity, and deserve respect. The sick are an integral part of our human family, precisely because they call us to compassion.”
Suffering and end-of-life situations can be meaningful because they bring people to reflect on choices they have made in the past. Acknowledging previous failures and conflicts can bring healing and forgiveness. Spiritual healing is possible when one surrenders to the past and prepares for the next life with God.
“Dying Healed volunteers have the opportunity to be a part of that healing process by reminding the suffering of their worth and dignity,” she said. The suffering person, through humiliation and powerlessness, may understand for the first time that dignity is not connected to autonomy.”
The very presence of compassionate volunteers will communicate the value of the suffering person, Saretsky said. Many people do not have a relationship with God and do not understand why God allows suffering. God does not take our suffering from us. God joins us in our suffering. This mystery gives meaning to the incarnation, when God became one of us and lived fully as a human who suffered.
“Suffering produces intimacy with God,” Saretsky concluded. “We experience God at a profound level. A heart that has suffered and healed is a good caregiver.”