He was a dignified man suffering all the embarrassing ways cheerful young women the age of his granddaughter deal with the body's failure as cancer begins shutting down the organs. Dying in a hospice, you lose all rights to modesty as you lose control of your body.
Few men could have found the indignities of those last few weeks more excruciating than did my father. But this was what dying of cancer is like, and my father, being the man he was, took it like a man. It was the hand he'd been dealt, and he was going to play it, as bad as it was.
Though he died five years ago, in bookstores I still find myself starting to buy a book I know he’ll like, and thinking as I start to pull it off the shelf, “No, wait,” or deciding to ask his opinion on a matter great and small, and thinking as I reach for my phone, “No, wait.” The world has a hole in it and not one that will ever be filled in this life. On this octave of the feast of All Saints, I wanted to say something about what he taught me about dying.
It is a great blessing to be with your father as he dies, though mercifully a blessing you will only enjoy once. I was sitting in his room at the hospice, my wife and children having run round the corner to get lunch, my mother having lunch with an old friend round another corner. He had, as far as we knew, weeks to live.
Listening to his labored breathing, suddenly I knew, I don’t know how, that he was breathing his last. I knelt by his head and said “Goodbye, dad.” He drew in a shorter, shallower breath than the others, and then stopped. The nurse came in, listened for a heartbeat, and I stood hoping I was wrong, that I'd missed something, till she shook her head.
At least, it is a great blessing to be with your father if he died the way mine did. He didn’t die with dignity, as those who promote “death with dignity” define it, which means, in essence, to die as if you weren’t dying.
It is not dignified to be dressed by cheerful young women the age of your granddaughter. It is not dignified to waste away, to lose the ability to speak, to eat, to drink. It is not dignified for your children and grandchildren to see you that way. It is not dignified to die when death takes you and not when you choose.
I see the appeal of “death with dignity” and programs like those offered in Oregon and the Netherlands, where doctors will help you leave this world at the moment of your choosing, without fuss or bother or pain. I do not want to die and I really do not want to die the way my father did. I would find the indignities as excruciating as he did, and I have no confidence I would deal with the pain as bravely as he. I would not want my children to see me so pathetic.
“Death with dignity” offers not only an escape from pain and humiliation, but a rational and apparently noble way to leave this life. All it requires is that you declare yourself God. Make yourself the lord of life and death, and you can do what you want. All you have to do, as a last, definitive act, is to do what you’ve been doing all your life, every time you sin: declare yourself, on the matter at hand, the final authority, the last judge, the one vote that counts.
But you are not God, and, the Christian believes, the decision of when to leave this life is not one he has delegated to you. To put it bluntly, he expects you to suffer if you are given suffering and to put up with indignities if you are given indignities. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord. And that, as far as dying goes, is that.
This is not, from a worldly point of view, a comforting or comfortable teaching. It is one much easier for Christians to observe in theory than in practice. In practice, we will want to die “with dignity.”
This is what my father taught me: to die with dignity means to accept what God has given you and deal with it till the end. It means to play the hand God has dealt you, no matter how bad a hand it is, without folding. It means actually to live as if the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, and in either case blessed be the name of the Lord.
It’s dignity of a different sort than the corruptingly euphemistic slogan “death with dignity” suggests. There is a great—eternal—dignity in accepting whatever indignities you have to suffer to remain faithful to God and to do what he has given you to do. A man can be humiliated and yet noble, and the humiliations make the nobility all the more obvious. My father died with dignity, though the advocates of euthanasia and the clean, quick, controlled exit might not think so.
It’s what Jesus did: dying with dignity, in obedience to his Father suffering all the pain and humiliation this world could give. That is something to remember, after celebrating the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, of those who have gone before us, if we want some day ourselves to be among the faithful departed.
David Mills is Deputy Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.