‘Let Love Speak’: No One Should Die Alone

COMMENTARY: ‘A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God,’ says Benedict XVI, ‘and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak.’

Missionaries of Charity care for a patient at Nirmal Hriday, a hospice for the sick, destitute and the dying, on Aug. 30, 2016, in Kolkata, India.
Missionaries of Charity care for a patient at Nirmal Hriday, a hospice for the sick, destitute and the dying, on Aug. 30, 2016, in Kolkata, India. (photo: Allison Joyce / Getty Images)

I live in Canada, a country in which euthanasia has run amok. Compassion has been replaced by killing. It’s become normal. 

A few of us tried to stop it. But the odds, as it turned out, were against us.

I was a career journalist. I watched and reported on our descent into madness. It was depressing to realize that friends and colleagues thought state-sanctioned death was progressive. 

I soon realized the only thing I could do was to accompany those who had chosen a natural death on their journey home to God. It was the answer to quell the frustration of living in a society in which some lives are considered disposable. It was also a way to exercise my faith. So a few years ago I became a hospice volunteer. It was the last thing I ever expected to do but it turned out to be one of the great blessings of my life. I believe it was also a blessing to those who were dying.

This is how I got to where I am today.

In June 2016, physician-assisted suicide was legalized. We were assured that only those near death and in intractable pain could apply. 

The word euthanasia was never used. Euthanasia, I was told, was pejorative. Instead the government came up with the Orwellian terms, medical aid in dying, or MAID.

The Liberal government of the day was able to make this radical move because there was hardly any public opposition. A year before a poll came out showing 80% of Canadians wanted some form of assisted suicide. More alarming still, 70% of Catholics agreed. 

By December 2016, the government struck a committee of academics to study the feasibility of extending euthanasia to teens, the mentally ill and those whose death was not foreseeable. It was clear to me that this was not just an academic exercise. No one studies things they never plan to do. The promise of no slippery slope was a lie.

For much of the time when this was going on I was a journalist at the National Post newspaper in Toronto. I covered religion and ethics. Watching our descent into madness was heartbreaking, both as a Catholic and a citizen who believed that we were a compassionate nation. 

Then several things happened to me that made these pro-death policies feel personal. I soon realized that I could easily be a candidate for euthanasia.

I had to leave the newspaper in 2014 because of a serious and very painful spinal condition called stenosis. At first I lived off so much morphine that I hallucinated most of the time. Morphine quelled the pain but it also made me sick to my stomach. I eventually learned how to deal with the pain and lessen the morphine so I could function.

I now use a cane but after walking three blocks I’m exhausted. I can no longer do any of the outdoor pursuits I loved so much. I still dream of hiking in the Rockies or cycling like mad along the bike paths that border Lake Ontario.

After leaving the paper I ended up doing 80 talks in the Toronto area trying desperately to stop euthanasia from becoming a reality. I also began writing articles for our local Catholic paper begging fellow Catholics to act. But nothing could stop this beast from rolling on,

And just as I thought, euthanasia expanded. The foreseeable death condition was scrapped. The mentally ill were to be next starting in March but the government has delayed that move for further study. But it will happen. The killing of teens and infants is widely discussed as a next move.

Eventually I became frustrated to the point that’s all I would talk about. I got tired of my own voice as did others.

Then a second hammer blow: Four years ago I was diagnosed with liver cancer. I got the call on a Friday evening. I was told it was told there was no cure and I could die. I told the doctor that maybe next time he could call on a Monday. When friends showed concern I’d say, “At least I have my health.”

Thanks be to God that I’ve been in remission for eight months after chemo and radiation treatments.

Despite these setbacks my life was good and I saw no need to end it. My wife is an angel and has cared for me without a word of complaint. We own our home outright. We have no debts and we have enough money to live comfortably for the rest of our lives. I love music and reading, two things I could now indulge to my heart’s desire. I also deepened my faith. I was able to audit courses from our local seminary. I’ve not just read the Bible but prayed it.

I was also able to start writing from time to time for some Catholic publications. 

In the middle of the night, when pain and anxiety kept me awake, I would review my blessings so as to avoid the sin of despair. I began to think about what it would be like if we had no savings, if we still had to pay rent or a mortgage, or if I needed to provide my children with life’s necessities but couldn’t. There was the trap of euthanasia.

I found out through my diocese that we had a Catholic spiritual group working in the palliative ward at a local hospital. 

I’m not brave; the work I do is not heroic. For me it’s obeying a call from Jesus. It’s the most important work I’ve ever done. It has reminded me over and over that life is sacred even to the last breath. 

Those dying away from home are often alone. Some are widowed and their friends are no longer alive. Their children are grown up and often living thousands of miles away. Some live close by but are too busy with their own lives. Besides, many people are simply uncomfortable around those who are near death. They don’t know what to say and fear they’ll make things worse.

This is what I’ve experienced: I’ve been with patients in their death throes. I have rested my hand on their shoulders while they shudder in their final moments. Some I’ve seen slip quietly from this existence to God. I’ve stood with families weeping uncontrollably as it dawns on them that the person they love will not be with them anymore. I have reminded those families to remember their faith is real. God wants their loved one to be with him in heaven.

When I visit hospice patients, I do many different things: I make stupid jokes. I sometimes read from the Bible, especially the Psalms. We tell each other our life stories. I work the TV remote, fetch glasses of cold water and play boardgames ("Connect Four" is popular where I volunteer). We watch movies. And at times I sit by them in silence and pray. I have learned it’s about being present.

The place I am now, though run by a Catholic health agency, is open to all. Most of the men and women have had very hard lives, and it’s clear that many of them have no interest in religion. I’ve wondered how I could approach people who were so dismissive of religion and of God. Then I read something Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est

A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak (31).

Benedict’s words told me everything I needed to know, and it confirmed for me what is written on my heart: No one should die alone.

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