The Mystery of Suffering
“I don’t care what no doctors say, Miss Debbie ain’t goin nowhere till she finished the work here on earth that God gave her to do.” — Denver Moore
Just the other day I was reminded of these words from the bestselling book, Same Kind of Different as Me, by Denver Moore and Ron Hall. Denver was a homeless man living in Fort Worth who developed an unlikely friendship with a Ron, a millionaire art dealer. The two men became friends as a result of Ron’s wife, Debbie, who devoted her life to ministering to the homeless. As Debbie was dying a painful, lingering death from cancer, Denver spoke those prophetic words to his friend, Ron. He was right – she lingered on almost a full month after doctors told them she wouldn’t live more than a few days.
But even in her last week, unable to speak, Debbie had an impact. It was during that time that Denver came to her and told her that she didn’t need to be afraid to die, he would “pick up her torch” to continue her work with the homeless. Yet another family friend, visiting her on her deathbed, had a profound spiritual experience that changed his life.
For many people today, the kind of lingering suffering that Debbie Hall endured is something to be avoided at all costs, even if it means taking your own life. Almost everyone in America now knows that Brittany Maynard, a 29 year old terminal brain cancer patient, has decided to end her life on Nov. 1. Under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, this is legal. Most of you have probably heard her arguments in favor of her choice, how she wants to end her life “on her own terms” and minimize her suffering and that of her family
As a healthy person who has known little physical suffering in my life, I don’t dare to judge this young woman. Yet I feel saddened that she has decided to cut short the days that have been given to her in this life. Because she is choosing the date of her own death, she and those around her may miss opportunities to impact others in ways we will never know about.
Last week I had the privilege of attending the funeral services of Ellen Rossini, the mother of a dear friend. Ellen was a mother of eight (beginning with triplet boys) and had over thirty grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This tiny, feisty woman (once nicknamed “Crazy Mama” by her children) was a devout Catholic who had suffered chronic pain from scoliosis for almost all of her life. In her later years, she had been confined to a wheelchair and suffered innumerable medical problems. Yet even in her pain and disability, she remained a central character in the story of her family and was often the life of the party. Her grandsons recounted how it was their job (as though they were attending royalty) to help “Nonna” out of the car whenever their grandparents arrived. One of her favorite moves was to grab a grandson in a hug and then ask, “Do you know how nice you would look in a Roman collar?” Once one of her grandsons convinced her he was called to marriage, rather than the priesthood, she started asking him, “Where’s the girl?”
In her last days in the hospital, Ellen was still joking, encouraging and cajoling her children and grandchildren as they all said goodbye. At her funeral, the church was filled with people who got to hear stories of her life of service, love, faith and joy. Ellen was an example of someone who got the most out of every one of her days on earth.
I speak from personal experience when I say that watching your loved one suffer can be nearly unbearable. I have had many agonizing conversations with friends whose parents are suffering from illness, dementia or just old age. When a loved one’s pain is great, you sometimes wish for a quick end, and choices like Brittany’s are tempting. But over and over again, I have seen good come out of suffering. When we respond with love and tenderness to someone who is hurting, it can impact those around us. When we ourselves suffer, it can prick a long-dead conscience and cause us to long to make peace with those we have hurt.
Of course, I would never argue that we should simply allow people to suffer for their own good, or for the good of others. I believe we should use modern medicine to relieve pain and suffering so that those who are dying can do so as gently and peacefully as possible. I do believe it is wrong, however, to try to choose or control the date of our death. My belief stems from a fundamental conviction our lives are not our own, and that God has his own purposes for each person’s life. Courage, love and faith in the face of suffering and death can change the world. As my own mother used to say, be careful how you live – and how you die. You never know who’s watching.