My husband is entering his final year of medical school; suffering, death, illness, these are common topics of conversations for us. The reality of death and human suffering is one he meets daily, and it’s one I’ve been witness to again and again in my short life. Being human includes death, it’s unavoidable, and for many suffering is unavoidable too. Unfortunately, it seems we as a culture have lost all value for that which is human, reducing personhood to what can be offered or done. But I have known those who see the value that is inherent in everyone.
A few years ago during my engagement, while my husband-to-be was off hitchhiking across Kenya, I spent a few weeks with a distant cousin of mine who lived in Venice. She has served as a missionary in Italy for many years, and she’s always been someone I’ve had tremendous respect for, and my time with her, watching her serve people with a heart that seemed in endless supply of compassion and grace, solidified my admiration.
During my time in Venice she took me along with her in all of her daily happenings, her’s was a life busy with valuing people; whether the baker down the street or a woman we met on the train to Rome, she always took the time to learn their story and to share our God with them. The most illuminating time I spent with her was in a dim hospital room, by the bedside of a woman she referred to as “Señora Carmen” (this wasn’t her name, it was in fact something Moroccan, but she always seemed touched by the nickname). Señora Carmen was dying of pancreatic cancer–she died during the time I was in Venice–we went and visited her often, my cousin spending time there so Señora Carmen’s son could step away from his constant duty at her bedside. Señora Carmen was always in a state someplace between sleep and waking, she mumbled occasionally, mostly groaning as her body decayed slowly and painfully. She shared her room with another terminally ill woman, Mara. Mara was much more lucid, and spoke some broken English and I had the honor of speaking with her occasionally.
I remember walking into the hospital, overwhelmed by the smell of death and disinfectant that permeated the wing dedicated to palliative care. We would greet Señora Carmen’s son as he left to smoke on the hospital roof, and quietly entered the stifling room where death was a known fate. My cousin would sit beside Señora Carmen’s bedside, hold her hand, and softly speak to her the only words of hope that can be given to a dying woman. And I could see Mara straining to hear. I could see her fading eyes, desperate for that same hope.
I was awestruck at the power in the room. This room that to many looked of a place that was useless, a waste, and devoid of dignity. But all I could see was dignity. As a woman, suffering her final hours, was given the gift of being valued, not for what she had done, not for what she was doing, and certainly not for what she could do. My cousin valued her simply because she was human. Doctors couldn’t help either of these women. Time had ended for them, their bodies were finished, left to the final days and hours; human effort had left them with nothing. And yet, my cousin, a simple woman, offered them something doctors couldn’t: hope in the face of certain death. She spoke to them of a God who entered into their suffering, a God who wanted them–these women who had nothing left to give–a God who valued them, so much so that he died on their behalf, he died so that this death they were entering wouldn’t be the end, he died so that the failures they encountered in their lifetimes wouldn’t be the final outcome. He died so that they could live again, in bodies that wouldn’t betray them.
We are so quick to remove ourselves from suffering. We stow it away far from ourselves, and avoid it at any cost. I think for many of us, suffering and death make us uncomfortable because we see our own fate reflected back in those eyes rimmed-red by pain.
I think that’s why we are so quick to sign laws that call for “death with dignity”; because we fear being “undignified” ourselves. We fear coming to the end of our lives, we fear debilitating suffering that will leave us with nothing to call our own, with nothing tangible to which we can attribute our value.
And there’s the tragedy, because in our deepest suffering, in our end of life and days as our bodies fail us, as they wither despite our greatest efforts, we are as valuable as we ever were. When our hands are too weak and our minds are foggy, we are just as valuable as those constructing towers or writing logical proofs. Because our value has nothing to do with what we do, it can’t. Because the pages holding our thoughts will fade and rip, those towers will tumble and our greatest achievements will one day be trampled by those who come after us.
Our value is in the simplicity of belonging to a God who created us in his likeness. Our value is in being human, and that value exists in our final breath. We are so valued that our God entered death before us, so that we can face death with victory, triumphantly asking, “Death, where is your sting”?
We are all dying (though some of us see our fates more clearly), and we have hope in the One who faced the worst of our fate for us, who grants us mercy for our failures, and grace despite our wretchedness. In him we have dignity to offer to those suffering and hope that assures that this isn’t meaningless and death is not finality. We don’t need to shirk from the suffering, or hide it away, and we certainly don’t need to hasten it’s end; because a person is valuable no matter how frail, and the dignity we can offer is in seeing them as such. In coming alongside, offering hope to those who haven’t known the God who loves them, and reminding those who know him of his presence through the touch and words of a friend.