My friend Diane is ending her life today. On Sunday I attended her final good-bye party which she called a “Blessing Event” although initially she was going to call it “The Lift-Off Celebration!” Diane has Multiple System Atrophy (MSA).
The gathering was beautiful, sweet and sad. It was hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact we were saying, “Goodbye. Here is what you meant to me. I will never see you again.” The rituals were moving and meaningful but I’ll save that for another post.
I’m going to share with you instead what Diane had to say about her church experience and what she had to say about Death With Dignity. Her honesty was breath-taking. I’m quoting from my interview with her for my podcast “The Final Say: Conversations with People Facing Death.” *
“I was raised a Methodist. I remember sermons saying gays were bad and that always left a bad taste in my mouth. That really turned me off and I didn’t believe in church or God. I believed in my own God, I didn’t believe in the church God.”
“[My God is] kind, loving, caring. Somebody you could talk to. After I met Elaine, she kept telling me how wonderful the church she went to was and I thought, ‘Yeah, right,’ So I went there and I was received with open arms. [A woman] who was 95 years old gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and said, ‘Welcome. Glad that you’re here.’ You felt like she really meant what she was saying.
So now being in this church I feel like I have another family—my church family. And they made me believe that God is great, that God is wonderful, that God is in all of us.”
Do all of us leave church feeling like we have just left our family; feeling that God is great, God is wonderful, God is in all of us? I hope so.
Death With Dignity
“People think you are taking the easy way out. And I say that it is one of the hardest decisions you can make. Because you are still viable. Our minds are still there. Our bodies are gone. But our cognitive functions stay with us. There should be no stigma because it’s one of the most courageous things you can do.
“I don’t want to be a burden on my family. It takes a lot out of them. So it’s very sad. But there’s also the fact, that like I said, we have all our faculties. And can say, ‘On this date I’m going take my life. On this day I want to say goodbye to the people I love most in the world.’ And knowingly take medication to slip off and die.
You know a lot of doctors don’t want to do it because they’re always trying to fix you—MSA, ALS, MS cannot be fixed. All it’s going to do is get worse, And for me, when I lose my voice or if I lose my voice before I have a chance to do Death With Dignity, that’s going to kill me. Because I won’t be able to laugh, to tell jokes. It’ll be my hell. I think everybody has a certain hell that they don’t want to go to when they’re ready for death. So that would be mine.”
Diane’s wife Elaine is supportive—as am I—but at same time we both agree that a planned death is pretty darn mind-boggling. This is why I don’t think it’s all so black-and-white. I think there is a continuum. So on one end you are totally against Death With Dignity, on the other you are totally for it; and lots in-between, i.e. acceptance with a tablespoon of ambivalence—especially if this person is a loved one. But then that is exactly why you want their suffering to end—but no, don’t go! Like many great Truths, it’s a paradox. It’s both/and. It’s complicated, emotional and messy; mixed with love and grief and anger and relief.
This is where the Church comes in, a loving community who is there to help us sort things out; whose arms are strong enough to hold us as we grieve, as we rage, as we heal. And the church Diane and Elaine attend? Richmond Beach Congregational United Church of Christ.
As Diane said, “God is great. God is wonderful. God is in all of us.”
*Launching Fall 2019