She had been a strong but self-effacing member of our parish for many years. Her husband had died a few years earlier. Now she was at the end of her days.
Beloved of many, she was now on a hospice-arranged bed in the living room of her daughter’s home. From time to time, people would come in, stroke her forearm, squeeze her hand, perhaps put some ice chips to her lips. We would speak words to her, even though she could not speak back. Perhaps she was able to hear us. It is possible—there are reports of people who were in a full coma and yet could hear everything.
Out of her hearing, in the hall perhaps, or out on the porch, we spoke about her and how much we had loved her, how much we had learned from her. We saw her distress. We saw that she was dying. We wondered if we should pray God to take her.
And someone said what was on the minds of so many of us. “We wouldn’t let our dog suffer this way.” It is true: we would have a dog “put to sleep.”
So why aren’t we doing that now?
It’s because my dog is not my equal. I am responsible for my dog in a manner that is like God’s responsibility for me. So over my dog, I do have, in some degree, the power of life and death.
But for another human being, no matter who that being is (relative, friend, or stranger), I am not God. I am an equal. And that means I have not been given the power of life and death over that person.
There are special situations where the political society as a whole does have that power, and so it can, through its agents, mete out punishments and even use lethal force. I am thinking, for instance, of police work and military action. It is important that such use of force be limited by law and subservient to true justice. But, for our good, it exists. Which is to say, no one of us is equal to the human city as a whole. The agents of political society have been given a measure of authority by God, for our good.
But, to return to the person who is dying, we are equal to her. No human being has the authority to “put her to sleep.”
What then is human mercy? It is a hard thing. We cannot escape from painful situations nor may we terminate them. Human mercy is to live into such situations. We hold the hand of the dying person, we speak lovingly, we offer a cooling washcloth.
We stick with the dying to the end. That’s real mercy.
It is said that sometimes a medical practitioner will tell a patient, “There’s nothing else we can do for you.” This is not an accurate thing to say; it is in fact not true. Better to say, “There’s no feasible use of medicine that can cure your illness.” And then best to go on to say, “But let me assure you, we will not abandon you.”
For there is always something else we can do. We can stick with the dying.
Out & about. This weekend I will be at St. Matthias Church in Athens, Texas. On Saturday, March 11, I’m leading a retreat that starts at 9:30 a.m., giving some talks on “How God Is Love in Suffering, Caregiving, and Dying.” The retreat ends by 3 p.m. Then on Sunday I’ll be preaching at the 10:30 Eucharist.
Monday, March 13, is the concluding session of my class on Losing Susan at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. The class is at 6 p.m. in Room 119 of the education building. You’re welcome even if you’ve missed the earlier classes. We will be discussing Part III of the book, “The End.”
My Ash Wednesday sermon at Incarnation can be found here and here.