By William Yale
My mother died of pancreatic cancer at age fifty-six; I was fifteen. For ten months, she endured chemotherapy and radiation treatment, until she collapsed and was hospitalized. She spent two weeks in the hospital, in and out of consciousness, until she was moved to a hospice facility, where she died.
It is difficult to remember the day-in, day-out experience of her illness — it was all a blur of family coming and going, of waking up to go to school but not really being present there. But I remember the day of her death clearly, as if it had been branded onto my memory with a white-hot poker. I was visiting my aunt for the weekend, and she dropped me off at home before returning to the hospice facility. My father hadn’t returned from running errands when she called. By the time we had arrived at the hospice facility, a white sheet had been laid over her body. Our parish priest came, and we prayed from the Book of Common Prayer.
When we stepped outside, we faced a torrent of rain. It felt as if each drop of rain hit the ground with such force as to indent the pavement; perhaps, collectively, the drops of rain would dissolve the scene in front of us, carrying us away with it. Or perhaps God was crying, too.
I don’t know why, but I wasn’t carrying an umbrella. Or else, the umbrella I was carrying did very little good, because I was soaking wet by the time we ended up at the burger joint across the street. A burger joint — how absurd. The absurd jumbled together with the tragic.
I think about this day often. The memories never “soften” over time — my mother died fourteen years ago and yet she is just as present with me today as she was then. There are no “stages” of grief. I was once asked at an interment whether I felt “closure.” Again, the absurd jumbled together with the tragic.
Modern culture doesn’t just fear death. It smothers grief. Fear of death, after all, is age-old. Our refusal to grieve properly is new. I hear so often of “celebrations of life.” What life is there to celebrate? Similarly, we blunt death’s impact with shallow euphemisms like “passed on” and “at rest.” Passed on to where? Is the person sleeping?
Our culture enforces grief-avoidance like a diktat. Death, and grief especially, are generally ignored by the popular culture; when not ignored they are sensationalized and trivialized, as in crime procedurals and horror movies. Our addiction to screens makes it harder to read books; but it also numbs our emotions, including both joy and grief. Most young people I know who don’t go to church don’t generally socialize with many older people. As a result, they rarely encounter death. This is one way in which church is unique in human society: it is a community which encompasses people of all ages, at all stages of life, from birth, to marriage and child-rearing, to death, and beyond.
Maybe we felt death more keenly when more people died young, when plagues or wars wiped out every other family member. Then again, that is a large price to pay just to remind us of our mortality. Perhaps we moderns have made a worthy trade-off. Or perhaps we’ve merely substituted earthly death for spiritual death.
I can’t help but think that this cultural phenomenon is in part to blame for our easy acceptance of euthanasia. We are told that euthanasia is “death with dignity.” What is a dignified death? What is a dignified life, for that matter? We don’t ask these questions much anymore, except occasionally in freshman seminars at small liberal arts colleges.
It seems to me that “death with dignity” in this context is generically defined as “death without suffering.” Is suffering to be avoided at all costs? Does that then mean that “life with dignity” is the pursuit of pleasure at all costs?
The Christian tradition has its own way of seeing death. As Fleming Rutledge points out,
Christianity does not recommend suffering for its own sake, and it is part of a Christian’s task in the world to alleviate the suffering of others. By no stretch of the imagination, however, could Christianity ever be said to recommend avoidance of suffering in the cause of love and justice. Perhaps the clearest way to sum this up is to say that Christian faith, when anchored in the preaching of the cross, recognizes and accepts the place of suffering in the world for the sake of the kingdom of God (The Crucifixion, 50).
History and the popular imagination are filled with images of redemptive suffering: the martyr nailed to a cross, or tied to a wheel or stake; the soldier on the field of battle; the heroes of the civil rights movement, though many were bombed and shot and lynched, persisted in bringing about a measure of justice. In each case, suffering is transmuted into some greater ideal, the greatest of which is love. It is Jesus’s death on the cross, though, that truly allows us to see how and why suffering can be redemptive.
The greatest challenge to the idea of redemptive suffering is the absurdity and nihilism implicit in death. There is more than a note of despair and desolation in all tragedies, none more so than the great tragedies of the 20th century — the concentration camps, the gulags, the killing fields, and the people’s communes. What could possibly be redemptive about suffering on so monstrous a scale? The line that “one death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic,” may be misattributed to Stalin — but what could be more true of Stalin’s character, or of our own human nature? I lived in China for two years, and while there, tried to expose myself to the horrors of Maoist China as much as any Westerner could be exposed, and yet I cannot possibly comprehend a million deaths, never mind tens of millions. This is the eternal problem of evil, against which any formal theodicy rings hollow. The only answer I am left with is the Christian demand to have courage in the face of — not in spite of — evil, despair, and suffering.
And, indeed, the way of the cross does not avoid this absurdity. In Matthew and Mark, Christ dies with his plea to God unanswered.
The lesser challenge — but the challenge we more often face in the culture today — is that of shallow pieties, Enlightenment utopianisms, or just plain mindlessness, which can be crudely summarized by the “death with dignity equals the avoidance of suffering/life with dignity equals the pursuit of pleasure” formula. Whether conscious or not, this dichotomy too often characterizes the most naïve forms of secular progressivism and liberal Christianity.
Christians are, of course, called upon to help the distressed and relieve their suffering, but all too often this imperative is twisted such that we ignore our sinfulness, God’s judgment, and the eschatological hope for the Kingdom of God. We reduce suffering and its alleviation to a purely political problem, to be resolved with better policy and technique. But if all the church has to offer is yet another political program, then we are offering thin gruel, indeed.
In the end, this brand of liberal Christianity is worse than thin gruel, because it actually impedes meaningful action in the cause of justice. Without the cross, what is the point? The cross leads us to take real and substantive action for justice, because it recognizes the true depths of our problem.
I started with my mother. What does this have to do with her? Shortly before she was moved to the hospice facility, my father made the difficult decision to remove parenteral (intravenous) nutrition. While even the Roman Catholic Church recognizes the licitness of removing the nutrition of a patient who is close to death, I still have to reckon with the fact that she survived sixteen more days without nutrition, her pain palliated only by a tremendous amount of morphine.
In situations like these, most academic or theological discussions of end-of-life care or euthanasia fall flat. It is easy to say generically that all life has inherent dignity and that euthanasia violates that inherent dignity. But it is harder to see why pain in specific situations becomes morally necessary — after all, at a certain point, any additional morphine stands a chance of accidentally killing the patient.
As before, I am left with only one recourse: Jesus’ passion, death, resurrection, and ascension, in which Jesus both identifies with and participates in our suffering, and inaugurates our common Christian hope.
In dying, my Mom showed me how to live. Her death was a sacrifice in the pure sense of the term. And I think this is generally true of those we love. Grief constitutes immense suffering, and yet without it, are we even human? When we insulate and immunize ourselves against death and its effects, we make death cheap and life a commodity. This warps not only how we view death, but ultimately, how we live.
William Yale is a lay Episcopalian currently living in Japan.