The tragic circumstances surrounding Terri Schiavo have produced much conversation about the sanctity of life.
Politicians, protestors, and legislators used religious language in their arguments to save Terri. In spite of the fact that the tubes and fluids were providing “artificial” life for her, the removal of this artificial sustenance was denounced as a sinful act of disregard for the value of human life.
Where in all the religious rhetoric is the reasoned voice of spiritual wisdom to remind us that “there is a time for all things…a time to be born and a time to die” (Eccl 3:1-2)? Is it possible to value the sanctity of life and also recognize that when it is “time to die,” there is sacredness in life’s ending?
Certainly, the sanctity of life is a principle that both religion and law should uphold. Life is valuable. A society needs safeguards in place to protect human life, especially the most vulnerable: children, those who are physically or mentally challenged, the elderly.
But in our zeal to exalt the sanctity of life to a place of ultimate value, let us not forget that physical life, by its very nature, is fragile and temporary. Life is precious because it is limited. The very thing that makes life sacred is the unexplainable mystery that separates living from dying.
While technology and medicine have improved life in many ways, they have also created new ethical and spiritual challenges. Feeding tubes and respirators and other medical interventions can turn the natural process of dying into a medical decision rather than a sacred experience.
The very interventions which are meant to “save” life and make things better, if used inappropriately or to an extreme, can turn “living” into “existing” and dying into a media event. When we attempt to hold on when it is time to let go, to control what is beyond our control, the holiness is swallowed up by feelings of failure and despair.
As a hospice chaplain for nearly 15 years, I have witnessed many miracles.
A few of these have been when people who were expected to die didn’t–at least not when everyone thought they would.
The other miracles occurred when people who felt hopeless found something to hope for, when broken relationships were healed, when feelings of worthlessness and failure became celebrations of meaning and wholeness.
At my father’s bedside almost 30 years ago and at hundreds of bedsides since, I have known first-hand the holiness of life’s ending.
I have held hands and prayed and shared laughter and tears. I have sat in silence when the mystery of God’s presence was too powerful for words. I have felt the peace that comes when forgiveness is offered and received, when gratitude is expressed, when the squeeze of a hand is all that is needed to bring spiritual release and affirmation.
These are miracles of reconciliation and hope and spiritual renewal. These are sacred times to be cherished, just as life itself is to be cherished in all its richness.
Perhaps one of the many things we can learn from Terri Schiavo is that when we hold on too tightly to life, the sacredness of dying is beyond our grasp. Perhaps Terri would teach us to share stories and memories rather than words of bitterness and hatred.
Perhaps she would tell us to reach out and build bridges where there is brokenness. Perhaps she would teach us that the bedside of a dying person is holy ground, a place of mystery where loved ones can find peace and hope and the strength to go on.
Perhaps she would tell us that as we let go and allow the sacredness of dying to be our teacher, we come to an even deeper understanding of the sacredness of life.
Linda M. Lewis is project coordinator for Faith in Action End of Life Care Ministries at the Hospice and Palliative CareCenter in Winston-Salem, N.C.
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