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Living Well, Dying Well


By Father Gerald D. Coleman, P.S.S.
Adjunct professor, Graduate Department of Pastoral Ministries, Santa Clara University

Contentious viewpoints become quite vociferous when a person’s “living well” amounts to living poorly due to illness and intractable pain, usually accompanied by emotional, physical, and spiritual loss. The question morphs into, “What can I do to die well?” I will explore this question and the Catholic tradition on care at the end of life at my talk “Living Well, Leaving Well” on February 22, 9:30 am, at Saint Lucy Parish in Campbell. All are welcome.

In Spy of the First Person (2017), Pulitzer Prize winning writer Sam Shepard presents a striking portrait of a man undergoing medical tests and treatments for a condition that is rendering him more and more dependent on those caring for him. The man “knows something is wrong” as he sits in a rocking chair in a screened porch and “just rocks all day mumbling to himself.” The “more helpless he becomes, the more remote he becomes.”

Another disturbing narrative is recorded in “The Last Days of Jil Finnegan” (www.mercurynews.com/2017/10/01/right-to-die-in-california-the-last-days-of-jil-finnegan), a 55-year-old Oakland resident who decided to take advantage of California’s “End of Life Option.” She suffered from incessant pain from cancerous tumors that lodged against her vocal cords and spread to her neck, back, and stomach. The methadone and oxycodone she took three times a day were only sending her into a stupor, forcing her to sleep most of the time. She always wanted to be in control and decided that she would die on the 14th anniversary of her marriage to Goeff. Her Stanford oncologist prescribed the lethal drug.

A dozen invited friends came to say goodbye on her death-day. One acknowledged that cancer had ravaged Jil and God did not want her to suffer. Another felt that being present at her self-induced death was “almost like an execution.”

Her manner of death greatly impacted her brother Tim who was suffering from terminal lung cancer. Would he follow the same path?

These vignettes describe how many people are living and dying in America. In his new book On Hope (2017), Pope Francis writes, “In these times that appear dark, in which we sometimes feel disoriented by the evil and violence that surround us, by the distress of so many of our brothers and sisters, we need hope.”

The Catholic moral tradition proclaims this hope by insisting that all human life is sacred, and the dignity of every person is the foundation of a moral vision of society. We have a strong responsibility to walk with all persons on their journey of life, dying, and death. Our moral tradition has at its disposal numerous tools to help people in life’s voyage, for example, proper care, and reasonable treatment that is not or does not become burdensome. The Church supports the proper use of pain medications, e.g., morphine, and presents balanced views on its use. This tradition offers great assistance to people when medical treatments become non-beneficial and the time has arrived when it is permissible to allow oneself to die and enter eternal life.

Living well and dying well are spectrums in the passages of life. Understanding and assessing them accurately enforces that both living and dying well is a goal worth the effort.

To explore this topic further, join me February 22 at 9:30 a.m., at Saint Lucy Parish in Campbell. RSVP at (408) 325-5288. Learn more at www.CatholicCharitiesSCC.org/Decisions.