Liz Johnson has returned and we thank her for another guest contribution.
I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately (I’m a really fun person to be around) and what it means to allow somebody to die versus prolonging a person’s life. My grandmother passed away a few years ago from complications of diabetes, hypertension, heart failure, and Alzheimer’s. Her battle with Alzheimer’s (and as a result, her process of dying) lasted several years, with her health taking a marked turn for the worse over the last six months of her life.
Anybody who has watched a loved one battle Alzheimer’s can tell you what an emotional and painful descent it is. What starts as occasional forgetfulness and erratic driving turns into lapses in judgment and a complete loss of tact. What starts with forgetting where the post office is turns into forgetting who a person’s children are; watching my grandmother recognize her son, but not know why he was familiar, was excruciatingly painful, and it happened over and over again. For a while, we could tell that she realized that something wasn’t right, but she often opined that everybody else was going crazy, and that surely she was fine. We had to take away her car keys and she had to be released from her decades-long calling as a temple worker, both of which were devastating to her. Eventually, it turned into her losing all ability to care for herself, occasional bursts of violence (especially when her blood sugar reading was over 500), and the need to be cared for in a facility. Alzheimer’s has a particularly nasty way of masking or altering the person so that sometimes you don’t recognize them, and I often had to think of her as an entirely different person so that her comments or actions weren’t taken personally. And then occasionally she would do something so perfectly characteristic, like quietly dancing in her hospital bed, that I would be smacked with the reality that she was still my fiesty, happy-go-lucky grandmother, but was just being held captive by a brutal, degenerative illness.
In the last six months of her life, she was rushed from her Alzheimer’s care facility to the hospital frequently for a variety of issues – pain, nausea, high blood sugar, mild heart attacks, mild strokes, falls, dehydration… basically, you name it, it put her in the hospital. Over this period, she was taking anywhere from 8-12 medications to treat her for these various diseases. My dad and his siblings, spread out all over the US, were tasked with making huge life-changing decisions for her with very little time. Do they treat her for the heart attack? What about infection? Do they treat the high blood sugar? She had a DNR in place, but that was only if she became unconscious – what about all of these other little things?
End of life care is something that has been hotly debated (Terri Schiavo, anyone?), but I think it’s especially interesting in a Mormon context. We certainly celebrate the afterlife, singing that “families can be together forever,” and “should we die before our journey’s through, happy day, all is well!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard death talked about as a “joyous” occasion, because loved ones can be reunited, we can be freed from our mortal shackles, and we can once again dwell with God. Yet we often view death as something to be avoided (or postponed) at all costs, and we do everything within our power to prolong our own lives or those of our loved ones.
Handbook 2 says the following about prolonging life:
When severe illness strikes, members should exercise faith in the Lord and seek competent medical assistance. However, when dying becomes inevitable, it should be seen as a blessing and a purposeful part of eternal existence. Members should not feel obligated to extend mortal life by means that are unreasonable. These judgments are best made by family members after receiving wise and competent medical advice and seeking divine guidance through fasting and prayer.
(Side note – how does dying become inevitable? Is there ever a time when dying isn’t inevitable?)
Relatedly, the Handbook says the following about euthanasia:
Euthanasia is defined as deliberately putting to death a person who is suffering from an incurable condition or disease. A person who participates in euthanasia, including assisting someone to commit suicide, violates the commandments of God.
Obviously there’s a difference between unreasonably extending mortal life and deliberately putting a person to death, but where’s the line? What’s the difference between hastening death (by removing medications, for example) and putting a person to death? In some religions/cultures, not pursuing every possible treatment option is akin to putting a person to death – do you think that holds true in Mormonism?
With my grandmother, it was never a question of just “pulling the plug” or “do not resuscitate.” There were never any grand interventions done to save or prolong her life – they simply treated her diabetes, her heart failure, her high cholesterol, her blood pressure, and any infections she got. Simply failing to treat any of these relatively minor ailments probably would have resulted in her death. Given her terrible quality of life, would this have been the merciful thing to do? Or would it have been grossly negligent?
How does our Mormon view of the afterlife color these decisions? It almost seems to me (at a youthful age of 30) that death is something we should look forward to! We’ll be greeted by our loved ones, we’ll hopefully live in the presence of God, and I cannot help but wonder if there will be a never-ending sushi bar and whether I’ll get to have a pet polar bear (you know, that whole “lamb lying down with the lion” bit). Our bodies will be restored in the resurrection! And I cannot even count how many times I’ve heard that Joseph Smith quote saying that no matter what our level of glory in the afterlife, if we could see it, we would kill ourselves to get there. So what’s the big deal? Why do we fear/postpone/avoid death? And should we?