The other day I met a man whose wife had died by assisted suicide earlier this year. We sat beside each other on an airplane and struck up conversation, as people do. We discovered we were both writers of a sort, and that was our starting point.
I don’t really remember how it came up, but I must have asked him about his wife. He was an elderly man and something he said made me think he was widowed fairly recently. Then he told me this really enormous thing: that his wife had fought cancer for years and had entered a new, final phase of not winning the fight anymore and so she had chosen assisted suicide about four months ago, with his support.
This seemed like a huge disclosure, a big, sad, tragic thing to share. I don’t know if the ease of his disclosure is a statement about how writers tend to go deep quickly with each other, or maybe it’s more a statement about the potential “ordinariness” of what we are now doing in Canada, by having assisted suicide.
Or, maybe, he was just sad and it was recent and so he blurted it out to a stranger. Then, almost right after he told me, this kind, quiet man asked me what kind of writing I do.
So, I told him I wrote mostly about faith things, and religious things, and that my husband is a minister. I’m not sure why I added that bit about my husband, but I think I said it because I wanted to assure him that I understood grief, and he was clearly grieving.
He said, “Oh, you probably don’t agree with my wife and I then.” I answered by asking him to tell me about his life now, and what it has been like without his wife. And so he did.
Later, I wondered if I had been unfaithful to my convictions by not saying that I believe assisted suicide is always wrong — but it was far too late to change his mind about it, and his wife was already gone.
About a week later in Ottawa, I attended an Augustine College lecture on medicine and assisted suicide by Dr. Farr Curlin from Duke University. He called Canada’s new assisted suicide laws the most liberal in the world. He urged Canadians not to give up pushing back on this law, but to continue to point out the inconsistencies, and to use language that people can hear. A doctor who objects might say, for example: “I cannot cooperate with euthanasia because I’m committed to my patient. I won’t do something that destroys my patient’s health.” Dr. Curlin suggested our arguments against assisted suicide must reflect solidarity with the sick and the suffering. That is so true.
I thought back to my friend on the plane and how the theoretical of the lecture that night had already touched down in his life, and how strange it really is that we now live in a country where people can be legally killed.
Karen Stiller is a senior editor of Faith Today. The EFC, Faith Today‘s publisher, offers a free discussion and resource booklet on the issue of palliative care and euthanasia. For more thoughtful articles on tough topics, subscribe to Faith Today.