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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

October 21, 2014

An Additional Lesson on Death and Dying

Here's a followup to the case of Britany Maynard, the 29 year-old woman with brain cancer who moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of Oregon’s physician assisted suicide law, the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. She had learned that she had six months to live, knew a bit about how those months could play out, and decided that she would prefer to end her life rather than suffer as she imagined she would.

Can all deaths be considered dignified? What about soldiers who die because of an explosive device or who are otherwise killed in battle, people in car accidents, or those who are victims of violence? Would this woman’s death be any less dignified if she died in a hospital bed and suffering pain?

Jason Welle, SJ tells a different story about his 45 year-old brother who was given six months to live in his article, “On Love and Dignity and Dying,” on The Jesuit Post website. This may be a good article for discussing euthanasia with your students. With a six month diagnoses, Jason’s brother Tony too wondered if taking his own life would be justified. Tony’s diagnoses was cancer of the bile duct, a cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes.

Here are some issues in the article that you may want to discuss with your students.

1. Because of a biliary drainage catheter and chemotherapy, Tony lived far beyond the six months initially diagnosed. He traveled and enjoyed many of the same activities he had prior to the diagnoses. Did Tony live his life with greater appreciation during that time because of the cancer? How might Tony have grown spiritually during this time?

2. Because he lived longer, Tony was able to join his brother and mother in caring for his father who had lung and bone cancer. How did his extended lifetime enable him to love his father through his final illness? Do you think that his dad’s lung cancer enabled Tony to think of himself not simply as a cancer patient but as someone who was greatly needed by his parents? How might he have grown spiritually during this illness and his father’s death?

3. Shortly after his father’s death, when Tony heard that there were no further treatment options for him, he chose to stay at home with hospice rather than receive further medical care. They managed his pain with his desire to be alert. People came by and said their good-byes. He received the Anointing of the Sick, and died hours later. Jason said that his brother’s journey through his illness showed that Tony was very courageous and heroic. How did Tony’s life after diagnosis cultivate courage and heroism? Were these traits signs of spiritual growth?

4. Jason learned a great deal about what it means to die through the loss of his father and brother months apart. Early on, he had asked Tony to allow those who loved him to love him through his final months. How were his final months a gift from Tony to his mother and brother?

If Tony had made the decision to “die with dignity,” as the California woman plans to do, he would have missed both exciting experiences and the ability to help his mom care for his father. He would have suffered less pain, perhaps, but contrary to what “death with dignity” suggests, pain brings suffering but not a lack of dignity. Each person has God-given dignity that others cannot take away that lasts through death and is not threatened by violence, pain, or messiness. And with God’s help, a person can grow spiritually even as his or her body declines.

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