Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 24, 2001
When itís time to finally let go
By MSGR. JIM LISANTE
The telephone message said it all: "Steven has no chance of recovery. The end is coming soon. Please come to bless and anoint our son."
Steven was 30 years old and a lifetime parishioner, the youngest of several children in a close-knit family. From birth, Steven has battled cystic fibrosis.
His life was in many ways a miracle. At the time of his diagnosis, in infancy, he was not expected to make it past five years of age.
Owing to advances in medicine that was later amended to age 15. Then maybe 20. His survival to see his 30th birthday had been a reason to rejoice. To get to that age wasnít easy, and included a lung transplant along the way.
On this night, the lungs and kidneys had finally given up. All that was left was the droning sound of the respirator, doing the breathing that Steven could no longer do for himself. He was deep in a coma, and there was no chance that he would return.
Left to his own devices he would have already left us. His body remained alive because of machines. Thatís what I walked into at 10 oíclock one recent night.
And into the maelstrom of an animated family discussion. Stevenís mother, convinced that mechanical life was not life at all. His father was equally convinced that he did not want to turn the machine off and end his sonís earthly life.
Both are great people who loved the son they had nurtured for so long. Both are people of hope, who saw that for the first time in Stevenís earthly journey, hope was not temporal but heavenly.
Our discussion centred on the proper choice for Steven. The Catholic Church says that we are not morally obligated to use extraordinary means to sustain human life. A respirator fits into that category.
And that view is most forcefully true when the "extraordinary means" will not result in recovery. Instead, weíre encouraged to let nature take its course.
Turning off the respirator is not "causing" him to die. In fact, keeping him on the machine prolongs a bodily life whose time has come. And does it to no advantage for Steven.
In time, his Dad saw the wisdom of letting Steven go home. And so, with parental consent, the machine was turned off. Steven slipped quietly and gently away.
The challenge faced by Stevenís parents is no longer unique. People face this kind of decision every day. The best way to meet this challenge is through dialogue before we get to that point. Advance directives indicate who we are and what we believe can help.
But making our intentions known to family and friends is the best assurance that our hopes for the end of our lives will be respected.
And, importantly, we need to see that life is of value, but not an absolute value. We come from God and our hoped-for eternity is with God. The end of life shouldnít be seen as a feared ending, but as transition to a higher life and a higher level of love.
Turning off a machine that could not give Steven true earthly life was the release that allowed him to experience the fullness of life in God.
For me it was a privilege: to share a familyís pain is a grace; to participate in their important discussions about the love it takes to let go and let God; and to witness Stevenís passage from this life to the next.
The situation Iíve just described is something all of us face, one way or another. Donít read this and think itís about others. Itís a wise and insightful family that talks about this issue today, so that tomorrowís outlook can be filled with fewer obstacles.
Life is a great gift. Knowing how to leave can only enhance that precious gift.
(For a free copy of The Christopher News Note, When Someone You Love Dies, write to The Christophers, 12 East 48 St., New York, NY, 10017.)
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