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Suffering Elders In Our Families: How Does One Respond?

A frightening trend is quickly emerging in this country, and it promises to muddy the waters when it comes to confronting the reality of aging loved ones. Today, there are seven jurisdictions in the United States where Physician-Assisted Suicide (PAS) is permitted. Hawaii (2019) [1] is the most recent to adopt the incongruous practice of legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide, and more than 20 other states are queuing up.

Physician-Assisted Suicide and It’s Many Names

The American Medical Association [2] remains opposed to PAS at the moment, reiterating that “Physician-Assisted Suicide is fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.”  However, a major concern is that other professional medical associations formerly in opposition to this type of self-contradictory practice among physicians are ending their traditional opposition to PAS.  The Massachusetts Medical Society [3] is the most recent defector to the “neutral stance,” removing one more barrier to legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide. At the same time, the medical profession acknowledges that upon legalization of PAS, the vulnerable and the elderly will be at increased risk of being euthanized [4].

In the ongoing battle to protect children in utero, the semantics game swapped “choice” for the word “abortion.”  “Mercy killing” replaced “euthanasia” decades ago. When “killing” was deemed too noxious a term, it was softened to Physician-Assisted Suicide. Today, “suicide” another virulent term, has been replaced by “medical aid” and “compassion.” Continuously mitigating descriptors to make killing more palatable for society does not eradicate the crime. Verbal engineering always precedes social engineering, and we must be vigilant.

For years, The Hemlock Society proudly led the charge promoting euthanasia. The hemlock is a poisonous plant, a fitting moniker for their mission, yes, but they have since been rebranded as “Compassion and Choices [5].” This is a classic example of artful deception coming from a movement rife with euphemistic propaganda that waters down reality and sells suicide as an ethically sound option for your loved ones.

The deception does not stop there. Vermont Medical Society’s change in terminology from “Physician-Assisted Suicide” (PAS) to “medical aid in dying” is put forth as intending to help physicians “understand” that the issue is “not about suicide” but “about helping patients who are suffering.” The issue is about suicide. “Helping” patients who are suffering by terminating the life of the sufferer is neither virtuous nor ethical.

When neighbors, friends or family members ask how they should respond to the pending demise of a suffering loved one, how should one proceed?

First and foremost, have the conversation (if possible) before your loved one begins to decline. It is wise to approach the dialogue with empathy and charity, striving to highlight the importance of safeguarding the relationship all the way through natural death.

How to Help Your Loved Ones

Be vigilant. The emergence of professional organizations and state legislatures condoning the killing of those who suffer signals a clear loss of the perspective that suffering has meaning in life and that when it occurs, people should rally around the person, not try to be rid of them.

Be compassionate. True compassion can be found only in understanding the word compassion itself: to suffer with.  Authentic death with dignity is evidenced in the mission of the Little Sisters of the Poor. The sisters make sure to provide a “peaceful, prayerful presence [6]” for the dying patient “for as long as it takes until they make that passage from this life to the next.”

Be steadfast. Remember that the campaign to normalize suicide is a direct assault on the sanctity of life. Continue to call it what it is: suicide, the intentional taking of one’s own life. Proponents of Physician-Assisted Suicide are counting on your confusion. Do not be confused.

Be prepared. Family members may be hampered by past relationship dynamics where conflict, failure, or prior transgressions remain unresolved.  Coming to terms with such feelings can require a great deal of self-reflection, consultation with supportive others, and in some cases unilateral forgiveness. On the other hand, others may struggle with accepting that their loved one, who had always been there for him or her, is now unable to be available because of declining health.

Be present. Understandably, when a person is in great pain and there is little control over much of what happens to them or within them on a daily basis, the pull towards wanting to grasp control over something is strong. True compassion does not equate to acquiescence to a person’s desire for escape, no matter how natural a human reaction this is. More time spent with a loved one at the end allows for heretofore unspoken things to be said – more time allows for forgiveness, compassion, processing of emotions.

When life is terminated due to Physician-Assisted Suicide, there is regret, pain that will persist, and hurt that won’t heal. A focus on the truth of a person’s dignity, and an understanding of the importance of being with a loved one through to their natural end allows for difficult losses to be looked back upon in peace.  Dignity rests in how the person was created – out of love, unrepeatable, with a plan for their life which is God’s alone to orchestrate.