By Ilse Wefers
When I encounter families and patients facing end-of-life issues due to the final stages of illness, accident, or advanced age, I am profoundly aware that they are already in the midst of the grieving process.
Lauren, age 30, is experiencing this grief. Her mother Marge, 64, has been on life support for three years. They belong to a very conservative evangelical community. Marge and her first husband were missionaries in Africa, where Lauren was born. Marge is now at home, bedridden on life support, unable to move, and Lauren and her stepfather, Mike, share her daily care. The costs are not covered by minimal insurance. It is a loving, supportive family, under extreme duress.
However, Lauren and the community are concerned for the soul of her mother. Marge wants to stop the pain medication and terminate her life support. Lauren believes that doing so will condemn her mother to hell. Earlier, Lauren told me that she and her congregation understand Marge’s present condition as punishment by God for possible sins. However, Lauren, after talking with me, indicates that she would like to offer other perspectives to everyone. She suggests I visit with her mother and members of the community.
As I arrive at the house, a man greets me politely, serious and a bit uneasy: Pastor Dan. Mike, Lauren and another older couple are present. Marge is a gentle, beautiful woman, and in spite of the illness or perhaps because of it, she radiates peace and kindness. Her eyes rest on you, and you are aware you are in the presence of a holy woman. Her mind is clear and is able to communicate without restriction of any kind. I start the conversation by placing us all — Marge, the family, the congregation and the pastor — in the presence of the divine.
I invite Marge to share with us her missionary work and what it has meant to her. She shares a life of joyful, loving dedication, generosity, abnegation, prayer, song, and faith based on Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures. She finds that aside from some failures, for which she has asked for forgiveness, provided proper restitution, and felt forgiven, she has truly tried to live up to the high standards that she set for herself at her born-again conversion. The others in the room share their own perception of her loving, joyful, fruitful and grace-filled life.
Marge then says, “My medications keep alive a body that is not functioning anymore.” Her prescriptions are degrading her capacity to die in full control of her mind. “I want myself, even in pain, to die surrounded by my loved ones,” she says, “and the blessings of my community, and in the presence of Jesus Christ.” Why, she asks, would God punish her desire to forego a senseless, incapacitated, temporary artificial life, without the blessings of the dignity owed to her as a human being? Why can’t she enjoy the blessing of dying when her body is unable to function any longer as intended by God?
“How will Jesus Christ look at Marge’s life, when she is called to his presence?” I ask. The others share their own perception of her fruitful and grace-filled life as a missionary and as a member of the community. “We know that her missionary work was wonderful between her home, the school, and the clinic.” “She is prayerful.” “She provides good guidance to the Marriage Support Group.” “She is always ready to help.” “She is a good sister-friend to me.” “Yes, she has fulfilled her mission.”
Then I ask if Marge will be sent to hell for letting nature take over the function of her body. After some silent consideration and group sharing, the older man says, “Marge does not need to fear death. She can encounter Jesus Christ and hope and trust in his mercy.” Furthermore, Marge discerns that perhaps it is even a sin to allow technology to interfere with her obligation to a natural life and death experience as intended by God.
After this encounter, Lauren continued to attend grief sessions. She also shared with her own congregation and Pastor Dan her journey, and they came to recognize that there was no sense in blaming her mother’s painful condition on punishment for possible sins.
Marge died in peace, a natural death, in the presence and the blessing of Pastor Dan and members of her congregation, and she was surrounded by her husband, her children and grandchildren.
Ilse Wefers, BCC, OSB Oblate, is a chaplain in Seattle, WA.