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