Dying person's pain deepens awareness of life and spirit

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, omi


April 6, 2015

Raissa Maritain, the philosopher and spiritual writer, died some months after suffering a stroke. During those months she lay in a hospital bed, unable to speak. After her death, her husband, the philosopher, Jacques Maritain, in preparing her journals for publication, wrote these words:

"At a moment when everything collapsed for both of us, and which was followed by four agonizing months, Raissa was walled in herself by a sudden attack of aphasia. Whatever progress she made during several weeks by sheer force of intelligence and will, all deep communication remained cut off. Subsequently, after a relapse, she could barely articulate words.

"In the supreme battle in which she was engaged, no one on earth could help her, myself no more than anyone else. She preserved the peace of her soul, her full lucidity, her humour, her concern for her friends, the fear of being a trouble to others, and her marvelous smile and the extraordinary light of her wonderful eyes.

"To everyone who came near her, she invariably gave (and with astonishing silent generosity during her last two days, when she could only breathe out her love) some sort of impalpable gift which emanated from the mystery in which she was enclosed."

The last sentence, I believe, has something important to say in an age where, more and more, we are coming to believe that euthanasia and various forms of physician-assisted suicide are the humane and compassionate answer to terminal illness.

The case for euthanasia generally revolves around these premises: Suffering devalues human life and euthanasia alleviates that suffering and the ravages of the body and mind that come with that suffering so as to provide a terminally ill person "death with dignity" and death with less suffering.

As well, it is argued, that once an illness has so debilitated a person so as to leave him or her in a virtual vegetative state, what is the logic for keeping such a person alive? Once dignity and usefulness are gone, why continue to live?

What's to be said in response to this? The logic for euthanasia, compassionate insofar as it goes, doesn't go far enough. Dignity and usefulness are terms with more dimensions than first meet the eye.

In a recent article in America magazine, Jessica Keating highlights some deeper issues as she argues against the logic of those who lauded Brittany Maynard's (the young woman who captured national attention last year by choosing assisted suicide in the face of a terminal illness) decision to take her own life as "courageous," "sensible" and "admirable."

Keating concedes that, had she not made that decision, Maynard would have suffered greatly and would in all likelihood have been rendered unproductive and unattractive. But, Keating argues, "Even if she had fallen unconscious, she likely would have been read to, washed, dressed and kissed. She would have been gently caressed, held and wept over. She would simply have been loved to the end."


That's half the argument against euthanasia. The other half reads this way: Not only would she have been loved to the end, but perhaps more importantly she would have been actively emitting love until the end. From her ravaged, silent, mostly-unconscious body would have emanated an intangible, but powerful, nurture and love, akin to the powerful life-giving grace that emanated from Jesus' naked body on the cross.

We too seldom make this important distinction: We believe Jesus saved us through his life and through his death as if these were the same thing. But they are very different: Jesus gave his life for us through his usefulness, through what he could actively do for us. But he gave his death for us through his passivity, through his helplessness, through the humiliation of his body in death.

Jesus gave us his greatest gift precisely during those hours when he could not do anything active for us.


This isn't something simply metaphorical and intangible. Anyone who has sat at the bedside of a dying loved one has experienced in that person's helplessness and pain that he or she is giving us something he or she couldn't give us during his or her active life.

From that person's helplessness and pain emanates a power to draw us together as family, a deeper appreciation of life and especially a deeper recognition of that person's life and spirit. This impalpable gift, as Maritain says, emanates from the mystery of pain, non-utility and dying in which he or she is enclosed.

In our dying bodies we can give our loved ones something we cannot fully give them when we are healthy and active. Euthanasia is partially blind to the mystery of how love is given.

(Website: www.ronrolheiser.com)