A Chaplain’s View of the Right to Die

I routinely ask my hospice patients whether they are afraid of either death or the dying process. There is usually no fear of death, but there is often fear of suffering, of being a burden, or of the loss of autonomy and dignity. Hospice staff can provide some pain relief and ease the burden on family, but they can’t do much about the loss of autonomy beyond honoring advance directives. They may try to explain the changes the body will undergo, but nothing can really be done about those changes. “It’s natural,” they will say, as if that makes the process more dignified. Family members are often comforted by that sentiment; patients are not.Opponents of the right to die often cite religious reasons. Frequent objections are that suicide breaks the sixth commandment and is a mortal sin, that life is sacred and must be preserved at all costs, that only God can decide when and how our lives end, and that Christians are supposed to suffer because it allows them to empathize with Jesus’ suffering.

Ending one’s own life was deemed a mortal sin partly due to a bad translation of the sixth commandment. I learned it as thou shall not kill, but it’s actually thou shall not murder. In the original Hebrew, murder is “the deliberate taking of another’s life, with malice.” The key words are taking and malice. You cannot “take” something that is freely given; you can only receive it. If I ask you to help me end my life, you are not “taking” it, you are only allowing it to be given, and there is certainly no malice. You are merely honoring my request to help me end my suffering.

The notion that Jesus died for your sins is called Atonement Theory, and if you believe it then you should know it also applies to his suffering. Jesus both suffered and died so that you don’t have to. Allowing or – God forbid – encouraging someone to suffer is not pious; it’s sadistic.

I could make similar arguments against the other objections, but that debate is a distraction because it focuses on human life, which is, believe it or not, beside the point. From a chaplain’s perspective, you are more than a human being – you are a spiritual being having a human experience. The death of your body is not the end of your life. When your Earthly purpose is fulfilled, your body is supposed to shut down and allow you to return to your true spirit form. My patients understand that and appreciate me saying it out loud.

But sometimes the body gets damaged and is unable to shut down on its own. Just as people in a bad car accident must be freed from their metal prison using the Jaws of Life, you may need help being freed from a body that has become a prison. You have the right to physically die because you have the right to be free.

Death is inevitable – suffering need not be.


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