End-of-life issues are taking center stage as more states approve physician-assisted suicide. In Iowa, such legislation introduced by so-called “Death with Dignity” supporters failed to move forward. But they’re not giving up their quest to pursue the right to choose to die. Iowa’s four bishops, meanwhile, have responded with eloquent op-ed pieces opposing physician-assisted suicide that appear this month on this page. Another end-of-life issue is creating a groundswell of interest, and deservedly so: initiating that difficult conversation with our loved ones about our goals as our mortal lives come to a close.
Our diocesan clergy listened to a presentation on this tough topic last week during their June Clergy Institute in Davenport. Many, if not all of them, are intimately familiar with the struggles families face when a loved one is dying without having expressed his or her end-of-life values. The clergy’s mission is to guide the faithful on the journey from death into eternal life. In that role, they can also help families to understand and apply church teaching to their unique situations.
The goal is not a good death but a good life all the way to the end, Chris McCormick Pries, clinical director at Vera French Mental Health Center in Davenport, noted in her presentation. Her observation represents a paradigm shift in how most of us view life and death. With the amazing breakthroughs in medicine, we’ve come to cling to every last lifeline, even if we’re miserable in the process. The fear of death, even for people with rock-solid faith, causes us to avoid and not to approach a conversation about our own death.
McCormick Pries recommends reading “Being Mortal,” a book by practicing surgeon Atul Gawande that addresses how medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending. McCormick Pries praises the book’s readability and insights. One thing is certain: doctors need enhanced training on knowing when they should try to fix something and when they should not. Patients, have to be willing to ask questions until they fully understand their options and the implications based on church teaching.
It all begins with the difficult conversation with loved ones. Articulate your values to your spouse, children, or someone else close to you. What does quality at the end of life look like to you? Do you want to avoid suffering? Strengthen relationships? Be mentally aware? Avoid being a burden to your family? Feel that your life is complete?
As Gawande’s own father was dying he wanted to avoid pain, which required drugs that made him sleepy. His wife, however, wanted him to be awake so she could talk to him. If you have a spouse, the conversation should address what each of you values to avoid misunderstandings.
Initiating and then entering that difficult conversation is the first of a number of steps on the journey. The Iowa Catholic Conference recognizes that people need help, and so Iowa’s bishops have launched a statewide Supportive Care project for people seeking guidance on end-of-life healthcare that aligns with Catholic values. Among the initiatives will be facilitators who can assist parishioners on a one-to-one basis with advance care planning. We’ll provide more details as they become available.
Meanwhile, the Diocese of Davenport is offering a workshop “End of Life: A Catholic Perspective on Supportive Care” during the Mercy in Motion conference on July 30 at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. The presentation will give an overview of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the end of life care utilizing such resources as The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare. Options for Durable Power of Attorney, Advanced Directives and the I-post will be included. Colleen Walters, vice president, Regional Mission Integration-Trinity Health Iowa/Nebraska will lead the workshop. Visit the website www.davenport
diocese.org to sign up.
These initiatives provide an opportunity for us to dip our toes in the water on the journey to having that difficult conversation. And don’t forget God in this conversation — the one who knit you in your mother’s womb and calls you home.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor