To live each day with dignity: Dealing with illness and death with faith, hope, and love Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011 -- 12:00 AM

Editor's View by Mary C. Uhler

We all know that we will eventually face illness, disabilities, and death of our family members, friends, and ourselves. Despite the inevitability, it is difficult to think about and even more difficult to talk about issues involving sickness and dying.

Yet, these are issues we must confront and deal with — and our faith can provide a great deal of guidance and support. As we conclude Respect Life Month, we should remember that respect for life must encompass respect for the disabled, the elderly, the sick, and the dying.

Bishops provide guidance

“To live in a manner worthy of our human dignity, and to spend our final days on this earth in peace and comfort, surrounded by loved ones — that is the hope of each of us. In particular, Christian hope sees these final days as a time to prepare for our eternal destiny,” said the U.S. Catholic bishops in an excellent statement issued last year called To Live Each Day with Dignity: A Statement on Physician-Assisted Suicide. I would encourage people to read this statement (available at and share it with people who are sick and dying.

The bishops point out that today, many people fear the dying process. “They are afraid of being kept alive past life’s natural limits by burdensome medical technology. They fear experiencing intolerable pain and suffering, losing control over bodily functions, or lingering with severe dementia. They worry about being abandoned or becoming a burden on others.”

Being a caring community

How we respond to these fears is very important. The bishops observe that a caring community devotes more attention, not less, to members facing the most vulnerable times in their lives. “When people are tempted to see their own lives as diminished in value or meaning, they most need the love and assistance of others to assure them of their inherent worth,” the bishops say.

The healing art of medicine plays an important part of this assistance. Even when a cure is not possible, medicine plays a critical role in providing “palliative care” by alleviating pain and other symptoms and meeting basic needs. Such care should combine medical skill with attention to the emotional as well as spiritual needs of those facing the end of life.

Avoiding the slippery slope

The bishops warn us about attempts to legalize physician-assisted suicide. They point out that people who are terminally ill need care and protection, but giving them lethal drugs is “the worst form of neglect.”

Taking life in the name of compassion also invites a slippery slope toward ending the lives of people with non-terminal conditions, the bishops say.  They note, “Dutch doctors, who once limited euthanasia to terminally ill patients, now provide lethal drugs to people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, mental illness, and even melancholy.”

The bishops call upon Catholics to be leaders in the effort to defend and uphold the principle that each of us has a right to live with dignity. They encourage us to join with other concerned Americans, including disability rights advocates, charitable organizations, and members of the healing professions, to stand for the dignity of people with serious illnesses and disabilities and promote life-affirming solutions.

We should all be able to live each day with dignity — no matter what our state of health — and have the opportunity to face illness and death with faith, hope, and love.