Suicide as “Death with Dignity”: The Power in Suffering at the End of Life

From Wikimedia Commons
From Wikimedia Commons

I recently came across this article, which tells the story of a 29-year-old young woman who has decided to end her life by her own hand rather than letting an aggressive brain tumor (the same kind that took my mother’s life) do its work. It’s suicide, but a lot of people in the Facebook comment thread where I encountered the article did not seem to want to use that word, even while affirming that “death with dignity” was a wonderful thing. Her story especially struck me because she is afflicted with the same disease that sped my mother’s passage.

I added a few comments of my own, mentioning that suffering can actually be a powerfully beautiful thing, if borne rightly. I certainly saw this quite intensely with my mother’s death. As her end approached, her long years of practice in giving made it easy for her constantly to minister with love to the people around here.

Anyway, here are a couple of the comments I left (slightly edited). You can fill in the blanks for yourself as to what prompted them. (Or just read the thread. It’s kind of long, though, and probably longer than when I first wrote this.)

From a Christian point of view, there can be genuine value in suffering. I’ve seen a lot of death, being a pastor, and I’ve watched it transform people at the end of their lives. It can be really an amazing thing.

Not that suffering ought to be sought for, but when it comes, enduring it with love is not only powerful but inspiring. It doesn’t make sense to rob someone of that experience if that is what comes to them. I can’t understand why that experience would be considered terrible or undignified.

Suffering and death are not the worst things in this world. For the Christian, they can become the passage to the resurrection.

The Christian doctrine of the resurrection is not just “going to Heaven when you die” (“life after death”), but rather a universal bodily resurrection that will occur to all mankind at the end of time (“life after life after death”).

So what does that have to do with the value of suffering? From an Orthodox point of view, human suffering and death can be joined to the suffering and death of Jesus, Who thereby conquered death and made possible the universal resurrection. So it’s a matter of participating in what He did, not sitting on the sidelines and letting Him go through it instead of us.

Even for those Christian groups that teach that “sideline” idea (which is traditionally called the Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement), suffering still has value, because bearing it well can lend maturity and compassion for others. Even at the end of life, it can help to clear the mind and heart of everything that is not really important, which is a pretty big deal if you believe you’re about to meet God face to face.

Roman Catholics tend to see suffering’s redemptive power more in terms of paying for sins in this life rather than the next, though not always. Orthodox Christians don’t see it that way, though, and neither do most Protestants.

The reason why suffering seems to be necessary in this life for this maturity and the conquest of death is not because God wants to zap us or torture us, etc. Rather, it’s because of the distorted state of the world that was introduced through the betrayal of Adam and Eve. We’re all so used to going our own way that changing that can be hard. That’s where the suffering comes from. So suffering is a result of that initial betrayal.

Where God comes in is not the introduction of the suffering — we did that ourselves — but rather in introducing the possibility that that suffering can become transformative instead of destructive. We’ve all known people who went through a lot — some become kinder for it, while others go the opposite direction.

Think, for instance, of the power of the message of human worth that shone forth from Nelson Mandela — much of its strength came from his long years of unjust imprisonment. And he walked with a dignity and grace that was deeply shaped by that experience. He didn’t seek it out, but he endured it with patience.

So while God doesn’t “require” suffering of us, we are so sick with sin that recovery from it can be hard. It’s like physical therapy after a serious injury — the doctor isn’t punishing you by prescribing the therapy. But getting strong again will probably hurt.

I’ve seen people live their final days in pretty terrible pain, and while I’ve watched some grow hopeless in response, I’ve also seen others shine brightly in that adversity in a way that is unthinkable outside the context of the suffering.

Update: I very much recommend reading this article, as well, written by a woman who is dying of the same condition: Dear Brittany: Why We Don’t Have To Be So Afraid of Dying & Suffering that We Choose Suicide


  1. Fr. Andrew:
    I’d be curious to know how your comments were received. I observed that the comment threads connected with Robin Williams’ suicide seemed to stop just short of calling him a tragic hero. When a very highly regarded Orthodox writer linked to an article that was (in my opinion) more realistic about the terrible choice of suicide, the comments were scathing. The impression I get is that no one wants to be the one saying that there could ever be something immoral about choosing to end your own suffering.

  2. I didn’t see any comments on FB after your first one (and your response within that comment thread). The People article has a great number of people attacking God and Christianity but I could find no comments from you there (I only went back 3-4 pages though; a lot could have been added since you posted).

    Thanks for posting your thoughts here; I appreciate your insights and the tone of your comments.

  3. Thank you, Father, for your thoughts. I have read the (lengthy) thread. It is disheartening. Strangely, this post and the young woman’s situation came to my notice via other Facebook people (young people in their 30s for whom I worked as a youth group leader in my past Protestant days), and these folks all heralded her as a heroine. It seems almost generational, this lauding of suicide as a tragic but heroic option. It feels as though we have moved a step farther from God with this younger generation. I am over-generalizing, I am sure, but that has been my personal experience. I thank you for an Orthodox Christian response to this situation. My condolences to you for your own loss.

  4. Thanks, Father Andrew. I wonder if those who call suicide “courageous” or “dignified” could actually utter those words to someone they loved who was contemplating such. Is that what they want suicidal teens to hear when they are devastated by bullying or a break-up? That they could be seen as heroic?

    1. When you connect suffering of this woman to the story of Adam and eve it turns it into a cartoon. I’m sure you have knowledge of this world and your words seem to show this, yet when you connect a disease to your imaginary friend scenario it gets a little digusting. I’m sure your mother died with dignity and I respect her choice to go with suffering. It’s just you dishonor this womans being by comparing her choice to be of lesser value.

      1. I do indeed believe that choosing to take one’s own life is not the right way to face suffering and even impending death, yes.

        As for “imaginary friends,” etc., well, this is an explicitly Orthodox Christian weblog, so we do believe in persons and things that others might consider “imaginary.” What is “disgusting” to one person is for us the wisdom and power of God, the great hope for all mankind. It is an expression of love and a desire for healing for all.

      2. There is no honor in suicide. To take one’s own life reflects a very distorted value of that life; it is not the same as valuing (to use your term) that life.

  5. Great words to a difficult issue. Outside of Orthodox voices in this matter, I don’t know if you’ve ever read the works of Viktor Frankl, but he has some of the most profound things to say about dying well after surviving 3 year in 4 different Nazi prison camps. The top two for me are “The Will to Meaning” and “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

  6. I’ve also seen this article several times, and I’ve also been resisting the temptation to engage on this one. My grandfather died of a malignant brain tumor when I was 7, so this story also resonates with me very specifically. From first symptoms to death, it was nearly 10 months, and it was hard to watch him die like that. It’s really how I learned about death. What I learned is how a relatively non-religious person could find a relationship with God, mend relationships with others, and teach those around him a multitude of lessons – all causally related to that state of suffering and the impending threat of death.

    The real value of suffering is fairly apparent, but, as I heard someone say in a question posed to Scott Cairns on an AFR special, “it seems to be the goal of modern medicine to find an analgesic for every pain,” and we have taken that to a logical extreme in the most “civilized” parts of society. What does “dignity” mean in this context, exactly? It seems to me that the Orthodox view is very similar and related to a similar position in opposing the death penalty – that is, no person or government should take the position that it can deny a person the path to repentance and a relationship with the Lord. The problem here is that it APPEARS as a 3rd person problem, but rather a 1st person problem. In reality, however, I think it’s a problem of societal conditioning, something like “that suffering is too barbaric for my tastes and standards,” there being an implication that it is not too barbaric for someone else.

  7. Glad you’re happy about someone’s suffering. You are not the one enduring the physical pain.
    The difference between your mother and this 29 yo is your mother was able to have a life. This young young woman will never know all those experiences. To compare the two is like apple and oranges.
    Unlike a ‘traditional’ suicide, where the individual makes that decision, this is something that will be shared with love ones. Unlike suicide where those are left behind wondering what they did or didn’t do, the reason is known.

    1. Just so it’s clear: I am not happy about anyone’s suffering or death. It is a horrible, tragic thing.

      But I’m not really sure, though, what someone’s age has to do with how they face death or whether they choose to bring it on themselves. Yes, it is perhaps more tragic when life is cut shorter than we’re accustomed to (my mother was much older — 61 — but many would still consider that too young to die), but I don’t see how being 29 makes suicide better. I also don’t see how getting a pill from a doctor to commit suicide is not suicide.

      And I’ve actually dealt with enough suicides to know that not all of them leave people behind wondering what they did or didn’t do, etc. And even this suicide in question could leave such feelings behind — perhaps her parents or other friends or relatives may wonder how they failed to show forth the redemptive power of suffering and death (even a horrible one). No matter how death comes, people left behind are likely to blame themselves in one way or another — not necessarily for the death itself but for what they may have left undone, etc. Death is a tragedy that has many victims beyond those who die.

      The one who dies has an opportunity to turn death into something powerful, both for themselves and for those around them. What I’m trying to convey with this post is not happiness at suffering and death — God forbid! Rather, suffering and death can be turned to good. This is central to the Christian message, which is that suffering and death (which come to us all) do not have to be the end and do not have to destroy us. We can instead paradoxically turn them into a victory over all that would distort our humanity. This is what the resurrection is about.

      1. I believe Christ died for us so we can overcome death and have eternal life. His life and teachings tell us how we can do this. Suicide is not part of that. I do also believe that if we can relieve pain and suffering and ease that burden that we are admonished to do so. Christ did that with his healing of the sick. It is the humane and Christian way.

  8. Thank you for speaking up, Father Andrew. As you know, the entirety of my mother’s journey was unspeakably precious to us, as I know your mother’s journey was for you.

    My sister, father and I were talking the other day about how the media coverage of this event and all of the suicide well-wishers feels so much like a slap in the face. My heart goes out to Ms. Maynard with nothing but love and compassion– you and I both know that the path she walks is not easy. It’s the cheerleaders whose voices feel so utterly grating.

    What I know for certain is that my mother’s natural death was more dignified, loving, and sacramental that anything I could have dared to hope for her.

  9. Dear Fr. Andrew, thank you for sharing all you share. Since my initial diagnosis of brain cancer Feb.18, 2014, there have been too many blessings to list here. The miracles are obvious to the most reluctant and casual of observers. Learning to be independent again after paralysis would be the most apparent. However, there are so many more, and my job is to show God’s power and glory in my life in all things, which I consider my only purpose during this part of eternity, ever mindful that I am a great sinner.
    Whether it is serving on the board of the local food kitchen, lighting the lamps for vespers, or loving a great-grandchild, I must visibly and tangibly demonstrate His mercy, for an hour or a year, it is all important. As we are fond of saying “Glory to God for all things” .
    I offer no criticism, as grace through prayer may yet conquer.
    Psalm 90, “so teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom”.
    Now I am 70years, and still learning. The joy in this in immeasurable!

  10. I think the 29-year old woman who decided to end her life rather than go through the suffering reflects a society that does not expect anyone to face a challenge or endure any pain or discomfort.

    Seek the easy way out.

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