In June 2016, the government of Canada enacted legislation that enabled eligible adults to seek medical assistance in dying (MAID). At the time, I followed some of the debate with many questions and a mixture of hope and dread. My questions included the incongruity of lodging the matter with healthcare professionals, who are committed to saving and serving life. I also wondered how Christians would integrate their faith with MAID.
I wondered if pacifist Christians, who hold a strong commitment to preserving life, had the capacity to consider the possible merits, even mercy, in assisting someone to die. I wondered about how a theology of suffering, redemptive suffering even, so basic to Christianity, would inform the choices we make.
Like many Canadians, I hoped the law would provide relief for individuals whose suffering seemed unbearable. I had enough awareness of others’ chronic pain and terminal illness to know a little about the excruciating grey areas. I hoped that pressure would be eased for doctors and nurses, and for family members. It seemed beneficial, if risky, not to criminally charge those who were helping to ease suffering.
At the same time, I feared we were taking the first steps onto a slippery slope, where the sacredness of life is diminished and where humans attempt to take for themselves authority that belongs to God. It seemed then, and it seems now, as if MAID exists in tension between Christian values to alleviate suffering and to affirm the absoluteness of God’s power to extend and withdraw life.
I saw clearly that the boat was well down the river; the trend towards acceptance of assisted death had momentum. Whatever my views, I would soon be living with MAID as a legal option. Now, here we are, some two-and-a-half years later. As of the end of 2017, 3,714 people had accessed MAID in Canada.
I continue to live in hope and fear, and with unanswered questions. I am mindful that many of us are on the boat in the river trying to determine what route to take, or to assist others. People like healthcare professionals and pastors, and, of course, anyone with a loved one who is experiencing great suffering and seeking release from that suffering.
Seeking information does help with the struggle. (Information on MAID is readily accessible online at canada.ca.) I have gained a certain respect for the strict criteria in place. Many view the criteria as too restrictive. Author Lawrence Hill’s account of his mother’s death, in the June 2, 2018, issue of the Globe and Mail, was particularly heartbreaking. I am open to learning from those with direct experience, like that found in Memory’s Last Breath, Gerda Saunders’ astonishing account of her life with dementia.
Getting information from a variety of sources helps. “Family perspectives: Death and dying in Canada” by Katherine Arnup (available at vanierinstitute.ca) is an excellent, thoughtful and thorough treatment of death and various options for end-of-life care. Virtualhospice.ca is another resource.
As Arnup says, “Death is a natural part of life, but many Canadians are hesitant to have essential conversations about the end of their lives.”
This brief column is my small way to encourage you to have the big, essential, if difficult, conversations about death and dying. A conversation suggests community. We have each other to talk with, listen to, and pray with about the hard parts of life, including that our life will someday end. Might we use the opportunity provided by MAID to more deeply explore Christian faith and to seek the means to have hope-filled lives and the capacity to die with trusting hearts?
Melissa Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.
“I wondered if pacifist Christians, who hold a strong commitment to preserving life, had the capacity to consider the possible merits, even mercy, in assisting someone to die. I wondered about how a theology of suffering, redemptive suffering even, so basic to Christianity, would inform the choices we make.”—Melissa Miller