Natural death should be blessing, not burden

Editor’s note: October is Respect Life Month. The Florida Catholic takes this month to delve into different aspects that culminate into the culture of life. This edition looks at aging and dying with dignity.

MELBOURNE  |  Euthanasia by any other name — whether it be mercy killing, physician-assisted suicide, terminal sedation and stealth euthanasia — is still an attack on life. Advocates for life work to help Catholics understand that death is a natural progression, not one to be controlled.

“There is sanctity to all of our lives. As much as we feel it is easy to celebrate the happy births, the life cycle that has been created includes diminishment and death,” said Dr. Rosemary D. Laird, a board-certified physician in geriatrics and internal medicine. “It is not our decision to alter or hasten that process. It is a test of our faith and understanding of the lives we have been given, and to respect and honor those lives and the sanctity of the life span.”

As executive medical director the Florida Hospital Senior Program and a founding physician of Center for Senior Health in Winter Park, Laird intimately understands how natural death connects with natural life in a way many physicians might not.

“Physicians are pretty ill-equipped to lead that spiritual aspect because it’s separated out in secularized medicine,” said Laird, who was honored as American Geriatrics Society Clinician of the Year in 2013. “I’ve always believed that the timing of death and course of death is God’s decision. The desire to relieve physical suffering is strong and sometimes challenges us to be mindful not to interfere too much with the dying process.”

And pro-life supporters want to counter the intent of the secular culture of death, which is to escalate the dying process through variations of euthanasia. Jeanne Berdeaux, director of respect life for the Venice Diocese, spoke about how deception rhetoric is used in expressing the act of killing.

“Compassion and Choices sounds like a good thing; that’s the new name for the Hemlock Society, an organization that assists people to commit suicide,” she said as an example. “The word ‘self-determination’ is used instead of ‘suicide’ and ‘aid in dying’ is another euphemism.”

MC Sullivan is a nurse and attorney who is on the board of the Supportive Care Coalition, and serves as chief health care ethicist and director of the Initiative on Palliative Care and Advanced Care Planning, which was set forth by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Boston’s archbishop. She agreed with Berdeaux that the “other side” has opted to use language that might be viewed as pro-life, but they are using the words “for evil.”

“We need to reclaim our language, unify our language and unify our concepts,” she said. “People function out of fear of unmitigated pain, of losing control, loss of dignity, of dying and death. A robust palliative care program knocks the socks out of fears.”

Sullivan said palliative care “mirrors Christian/Catholic anthropology, dealing with the physical, psycho-social and spiritual needs of the person.” Started as a direct response to the initiative for assisted suicide, palliative care is a model of care for addressing chronic illness that could lead to death.

“End-of-life care/advance-care planning is equally as important because if we cannot make decisions, we need people to stand in when the time comes with full legal and moral authority,” she continued. “We entrust that person to do what we know the patient would have wanted them to do.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on physician-assisted suicide called “To Live Each Day With Dignity.” Found on the website, it states in part, “A caring community devotes more attention, not less, to members facing the most vulnerable times in their lives.” The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops provides the necessary form, “Catholic Declaration on Life and Death Advance Directive,” for end-of-life care planning on its website,

“We face the reality of death with the confidence of faith,” said Michael Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The key to understanding how to approach questions at the end of life is weighing the benefits and burdens of the means of treatment available to us. We have a duty to preserve our lives, but that duty is not absolute. The duty holds as long as we deem the benefits of interventions to exceed the burdens to us; it is not binding when the burdens are excessive or the benefits insufficient. At the same time, suicide and euthanasia are never acceptable.”

The family caregiver is usually the person entrusted with the responsibility for final decisions.  Laird said people should be open to the idea that caring for a loved one in that time is a blessing and not a burden.

“People should be open to the potential that caring for loved ones can be a blessing, but most people won’t give themselves the opportunity to receive the blessing,” she said. “I hope people would try to seek support in caring for a loved one. There’s a lot of information about the stress of it all and less about the potential positives that can come from it. The spiritual value is not a common connection, but should be.”

Janet Steiner, director of education and family care services for the Brevard Alzheimer’s Foundation, is a certified dementia practitioner with degrees in psychology and gerontology who has committed her lifetime to care and caregivers. She said she learned more from her experience in caring for her mother during her last year of life than from any other experience.

“I had to listen more and when I spoke, choose my words carefully. I had to be fully attentive,” Steiner said. “I had to be adult, but also remain the child. I had to be both humble and assertive, often in the same sentence. I had to remain hopeful despite the insidious decline. She taught me how to face fear and at the same time remain brave in the face of death. She taught me I have the power to overpower death with love.”

Steiner shared that it is love that draws us into the caring role and we do it caringly and willingly and then if we find ourselves stuck, we must change.

“God gives us a real gift when he gives us time to learn the lessons. Every day was a gift from God — one more day to share our love and for me to adjust to being more patient. We have to change. We cannot stand still.”

Steiner also shared lessons on dying. “It’s OK to be afraid. Pain and sacrifice are inevitable,” she said. “We have to help each other endure suffering. I learned I couldn’t make it go away. Every day you face moments that you feel out of control and you share pain, mental and emotional as well as physical. We neglect to realize that mental and emotional pain can be worse than physical pain — they can’t be fixed, they’re out of my control. I have to endure and each day recommit, ‘I can do this!’ as long as I have God to help.”

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Caring for those who are dying can offer lessons for life

MELBOURNE  |  Andrew Lee had been working for 15 years at Harris Corporation in Melbourne in regular government business building satellites when he heard God’s call to do something completely different: to build a communication system for health care providers as a new advocate for the elderly.
In 2007, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. As he took her to appointments, he realized he was carrying all of her medical information, an attaché of information from different physicians and sources that many a caregiver might recognize. But he also came to realize while doctors had their own set of charts, lab results and scans, they didn’t have access to the information of other physicians who also treated his mother.

“Other reports might be on a separate paper or fax and they wouldn’t have the notes of other physicians; they weren’t talking to one another. No one was looking at the whole patient,” Lee said. “I dropped everything to work with (another Harris employee) and we built a health care portal (computer program) which allows health care providers to get online and share records.”
In 2013 Harris sold the company and Lee returned to building satellites, but advocacy and care of his mother continued. The oncologist treating her cancer in 2007 warned that she had six months to live if he didn’t treat the cancer, but if he did, her quality of life might not be good. He asked if she wanted to fight and she did; she wanted to see her grandchildren grow up.

“Mom was a retired nurse, a volunteer at church and the library, she visited people,” Lee said. “It just felt natural that mom would fight.”

Lee’s mother lived eight more years to see her grandchildren all graduate from college. As her needs for care increased — from driving to a walker; living independently to 24/7 care in her own home, in Lee’s home and finally a nursing home — Lee and his family realized that what appeared to be an ordeal involving big sacrifices of their own lives became an unanticipated blessing.

“Mom’s productivity wasn’t about what she could do,” Lee said. “Her productivity was in what was happening to all of us. In this blessing of what felt like a burden, we learned about the frailty of life, the end-of-life issues and how poorly they are dealt with. We really learned the true meaning of the commandment to ‘Honor your father and mother.’”

He said the experience put his own faith into perspective. There were adjustments, biting of the tongue to avoid an argument and a lot of “swallowing our pride.”

“A perfect example was mom wanted to carry her own coffee cup while using the walker. The coffee spilled, but we learned to put less in the cup so she’d feel better about herself and it didn’t matter if it spilled,” Lee said. “We thought we were doing her a favor carrying the cup, but we learned to respect her wishes and her dignity as a human being. The opportunity of having her live in our home provided adventures and gave us the chance to get to know her better. It changed us to be less selfish, to see time is so precious and to listen to all the incredible experiences and stories she shared.”

On March 25, 1995, St. John Paul II released his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae: On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life.” It proclaimed in word what he ultimately witnessed with his life — continuing as pope even as he became increasingly more debilitated by Parkinson’s disease and other exigencies of aging. Catherine Loh is the director of marriage and family life for the Diocese of Palm Beach. Catholic Charities’ Elder Affairs program provides support and services that address the human suffering of the elderly, including several facilities of affordable housing.

“The witness of St. John Paul II who suffered with dignity was forgotten too quickly,” Loh said. “Given what’s happening in society shows we need to be reminded of the value of the dignity of life that the elderly bring to not just their family, but to society as a whole, to all of us.”