A few years ago my last remaining grandparent died. One night, my parents told me that my 96-year-old Nana was not expected to live for much longer. I attended a family gathering at her house to pray and to pay my last respects.
As I sat in her living room praying the rosary with members of my family, I felt a profound sense of God’s presence and the human dignity of my Nana. This support provided great consolation to my Nana and family members at this difficult time.
However, the face of death is changing. This change was highlighted in a four-part series called My Last Summer screened on ABC1 recently. The series showed the journey of five UK people who had terminal illnesses, as they approached the end of their life.
This show brought home to me that, while palliative care was available to help them manage their physical pain, their sense of social isolation and loss of control over their lives were the biggest sources of anxiety.
This anxiety had caused two of the five participants to consider the possibility of euthanasia.
One of the participants, Jayne, experienced a marital breakdown after her cancer diagnosis. Her husband of more than 20 years did not support her emotionally when she received her diagnosis and their relationship ended.
Another participant, Andy, found that his social circles collapsed when he announced his terminal diagnosis. He said: “people are too scared to approach it (death) and speak to us about it – so they have distanced themselves from us – so you lose a lot of friends.”
Another participant died at home alone and his body was discovered by a local charity. As family and social bonds weaken in our society so can the human dignity of the sick and elderly.
Despite this sadness, the show demonstrated that the friendships between the five participants helped them to find new purpose to their lives.
It was obvious that they could empathise with each other, more so than with any of their friends or family. This fellowship gave them a greater sense of dignity and worth as they faced their biggest test.
The social isolation of the terminally ill, which was highlighted in My Last Summer, was recently commented on by Pope Francis in his address to the Pontifical Academy for Life on 5 March:
“Abandonment is the gravest ‘sickness’ of the elderly, and also the greatest injustice they can suffer: those who have helped us grow must not be abandoned when they are in need of our help.”
Those who promote euthanasia seek to provide an answer to the fears that the elderly and the terminally ill feel about social isolation, loss of dignity and pain management.
The issue is very much alive in Australian politics. In the recent state elections in NSW and Victoria, a party called the Voluntary Euthanasia Party ran candidates for the upper house.
The debate is also moving to a new frontier; the social media generation. The case of Brittany Maynard, 29, an American woman who ended her life late last year after suffering from terminal brain cancer, has clearly set a new precedent.
The debate has moved on from focusing on older, terminally ill patients and ‘Dr Deaths’ to a younger generation in the prime of their life. The idea now seems to be about fulfilling a ‘bucket list’ of last wishes and then having the ability to end one’s life on one’s own terms while one still has a reasonable ‘quality of life’.
It is important for Catholics to take seriously the abandonment, social isolation and loss of personal autonomy that the sick, elderly and terminally ill can face in our society, so that in combination with good palliative care, we can help offer a credible alternative to euthanasia, which the Church teaches can never be morally justified.
This alternative will face a challenge in future parliaments, especially as the budget impact of our ageing population starts to be perceived as an unnecessary burden.
In the context of our faith, Jesus felt that He had been abandoned by His Father and His friends when He was on the Cross. But Mary His mother was with Him to the end.
Let us pray that people facing death can feel the loving presence of Mary, their spiritual mother, to give them courage in their final hours.