July 21st, 2019

Guest Column: Nature will take us in the end, when the time is right

By Medicine Hat News Opinon on December 14, 2018.

I signed off on two deaths this week. Both were expected — wanted even — after years of suffering. Both were peaceful and pain-free. Both patients were surrounded by their loved ones, had a chance to share last words, conjure up favourite memories, sing a special song. It was beautiful to witness.

To these patients and their families, I provided real “assistance in dying.” Not a lethal injection. Not a confirmation that a suicide request would be assisted, if indeed they had asked for it. But rather authentic human care: A comforting hand, a warm blanket, a hug; time to answer questions, reconcile past hurts, and bring family together. Reassurance that their lives mattered and that their natural deaths have meaning beyond themselves.

This is what it means to care for the dying: To enter into their suffering and walk — or just sit — with them. Often, no words need to be said; only sharing in the knowledge and comfort that someone is there to affirm who they are and what they are going through. I may never truly understand what they experience, but their resilience allows me to try.

Walking through suffering makes us more human, more open to compassion and empathy with those in difficult circumstances. There are no easy solutions or quick injections to end it all. Just patience and the silence of knowing that nature will take us in the end, when the time is right — just as we entered this world at the right time, without a say.

A good friend once shared a proverb from his country: We are promised pain and suffering in this life; what you do with it defines who you are.

Walking through suffering also defines who we are. It is a way to overcome, not to give in. It defines us as people who endure, who play out the hand that has been dealt rather than folding and speeding death up. It allows others to grow in compassion and caring and leaves a strong legacy. It’s not easy, but it’s the proper way to exercise autonomy.

I signed off on two deaths this week. Both patients were against medical assistance in dying. Both patients overcame their suffering and infused it with meaning. Both had good, natural deaths. Rest in peace, my friends.

Luke Savage, BKin (Hons), MD, CCFP, H, is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Calgary, a rural family physician and board member of Canadian Physicians for Life.

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