St. Mother Teresa said, “No one should die alone…each human should die with the sight of a loving face.” Too often this is not the case. This was particularly true in recent years with the COVID outbreak, when a huge spike in patients dying in the hospital occurred. Compounding this challenge was the forced isolation of such patients –– sometimes even denying spouses and children to be with their dying loved one.
Yet, even before COVID (and since) many individuals are isolated and are living alone and in poverty dependent on limited government support. Not only is the support limited, but some states like Oregon offer full funding for assisted suicide while denying life-preserving medication based on cost concerns. It is little wonder that among the top reasons individuals choose assisted suicide are fear of being a burden and fear of future suffering.
All of us, and especially family members, have a deep responsibility to counter these fears. Chief among them is the willingness to care for our aging parents just as they cared for us when we were young. We need to reassure them not only by our words, but also by our actions that it is a joy (not a burden) to be able to return their love and kindness.
Physicians, too, have a particular responsibility to reassure and actively treat pain, nausea, and all other symptoms that impact present suffering. Inadequately treated suffering can fuel fears of future suffering. As a family physician who cares for individuals from conception to natural death, this is often my most important role: To let the patient know that I will do all that I can to help them to live well until they die; I will not abandon them.
As Catholics we are blessed to have priests who bring sacraments to the dying. Yet, not only clergy must visit the sick, but all of us as Catholics have a responsibility to support the dying. We can do this by praying with and for the sick in our community. Some may even choose to serve as volunteers in a local hospice.
While caring for and supporting a dying loved one can be filled with sadness and grief, we should take great comfort in the words of Jesus in His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
William L Toffler M.D
Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network (USA)