Beliefs Cathy Lynn Grossman: Faith and Reason Opinion

Brittany Maynard’s death: Does suffering have spiritual meaning?

Brittany Maynard, who died Saturday, advocated for other terminally ill people to be able to choose their day of death as she did.

Brittany Maynard, who died Saturday, advocated for other terminally ill people to be able to choose their day of death as she did.

When Brittany Maynard became youthful face of the right-to-die movement, she brought to the public table several fierce debates.

Does this movement champion suicide?

I don’t call Maynard’s death “suicide” because, overwhelmingly, the people who commit suicide are those who have a choice to continue to live. People with a terminal diagnosis — an incurable disease or condition that physicians determine likely will kill them in the next six months — don’t have this choice. Maynard had an aggressive brain tumor robbing her of the life she said she very much wanted to live. Hence, I find the term physician-assisted dying more accurate. Death is not debatable.

What the right-to-die movement led, by advocacy groups such as Compassion & Choices, do signal, however, to the great alarm of many of its opponents, is that suffering is optional and that it might also be spiritually meaningless.

The word “suicide,” “suffering” is another word that is used — and valued — very differently. Maynard, by dying at age 29, signaled that to carry on while she no longer knew herself was a pointless choice that would only prolong the agony of those who loved her.

That’s a very very different perspective than taught by many of the world’s religions and philosophies. In 2005, I did a deep study on the vocabulary of death and dying as a project for the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion. I asked about autonomy, suffering and spirituality.

We wince when we hear the word “suffering.”

Former Pope Benedict, in his first address to the world after his election, spoke of heroic suffering, accepted to unite a believer with Jesus suffering for the love and salvation of mankind. And in this, he echoed St. John Paul II’s address to the First Annual World Day of the Sick in 1993.

The late pope said: “Your sufferings, accepted and borne with unshakeable faith, when joined to those of Christ take on extraordinary value for the life of the Church and the good of humanity.”

Evangelical author and disabilities activist Joni Eareckson Tada scolded Maynard in a Religion News Commentary, saying her choice defied God and endangered vulnerable people who might emulate her — or be victimized by others who saw no value in their lives.

In Oregon, Washington, Vermont, Montana and New Mexico,  terminally ill patients who fear “intolerable suffering” can ask a doctor for assistance in dying on a day of their own choosing.

“She’s suffered enough” people will say when they grope for a rationale for telling doctors to do no more.

But what’s “enough?” Is there a just right amount?

“Suffering” has no qualitative measure. Unlike physical pain — expressed with a grimace or a moan or a rational rating of 1 to 10 for the doctor making rounds — it’s psychological, it’s emotional.

It’s fear, despair, anger for the life past or present, the unknown to come.

Suffering may be born of relationships with other people or with God, relationships gone sour, sad or hollow.  A San Francisco rabbi and former hospice chaplain Michael Goldberg told me, ” A great of the suffering at the end of life is either self-inflicted or inflicted by friends and relatives. It’s not due to disease.”

Often, it’s not the sick person who suffers.

“Psychic suffering requires consciousness. If you are deeply comatose, you don’t feel pain,” said medical anthropologist Sharon Kaufman, who spent years in three hospitals observing death, dying and decision-making for her new book, …And A Time to Die: How American Hospitals Shape the End of Life.

Since suffering, like beauty, is in the mind of the beholder, the choice to bear it, numb it or dumb it down is personal, cultural and spiritual.

Maynard told CNN: “I considered passing away in hospice care at my San Francisco Bay-area home. But even with palliative medication, I could develop potentially morphine-resistant pain and suffer personality changes and verbal, cognitive and motor loss of virtually any kind.”

But in Iowa, a high school girl with an aggressive brain tumor has battled back through treatments and surgeries to potentially add years to her life. According to the Des Moines Register’s coverage of Bethany Gruich, 17, she whispered to her mother in one of the worst days, that she was not ready to die.  Maynard’s choice was unacceptable to this Baptist family. Bethany’s mother, Lori,  said, “My faith goes against that on all levels.”

Catholic doctrines exclude physician-assisted dying when suffering appears endless and overwhelming.

“When can we say that the potential to grow or overcome or bear that suffering, that potential which made that suffering meaningful, is gone forever?” asks the Rev. Kevin Fitzgerald, of the Center for Clinical bioethics at Georgetown University. The Jesuit priest’s questions are rhetorical. He asks: “Why do we think someone is enlightened enough to know their suffering is not redemptive?”

Traditional Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, sees life as God’s gift, to give and to take away.

But for the Hindu or Buddhist, suffering may be accepted as inescapable.

“The law of karma says that every embodied soul, every living person, depending on the kind of life one has led, will reap the consequences of our actions, Injustices, and suffering in this world might only be explained by the past,” says Dr. Varadaraja V. Raman, an associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Hinduism.

Best to get it over with now.

Brittany Maynard who was, I repeat, just 29, may represent a disconnection from views rooted in religion or karma. To her, suffering born by her body and her loved ones’s emotions was not worthwhile if she were no longer living, thinking, acting as Brittany.

Her choice to die may reinforce to many — particularly religiously-disengaged millennials —  that spiritual meaning, like suffering, is up to you.

She said, “When my suffering becomes too great, I can say to all those I love, “I love you; come be by my side, and come say goodbye as I pass into whatever’s next.” I will die upstairs in my bedroom with my husband, mother, stepfather and best friend by my side and pass peacefully. I can’t imagine trying to rob anyone else of that choice.”



About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


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  • “redemptive suffering” . Explain that one to the dying child. Oh the arrogance of the faithful. They know no bounds.

  • It’s a personal choice, and that’s how it should stand. No one has the right to impose their will or religious/philosophical viewpoints on another.

  • Thank for the thought provoking article. We do not let our beloved animals suffer, so why would you want another human to surfer. What beautiful insight and consideration she had for those whom she cared.

  • I’m starting to get the feeling that Brittany helped bring us to a moment of realization, nationwide.

    From so many conversations I’ve seen about her – here, on facebook, face to face, and so on, I hear again and again the realization that everyone has the right to decide how and when they’ll die, period. The realization that all the platitudes about suffering being “redemptive” or “divine” are both hollow and harmful. The realization that when one person’s religious beliefs infringe on another person’s personal decisions, it is unjust.

    It’s a moment of realization, like when a little child say “but the faiths have no clothes!”

  • If life is only worth continuing if it can be lived with dignity and vibrancy and ability with no fear of future pain of unknown degree, then you have a case for her “death with dignity”.
    If life is worth living even while dignity and vibrancy and ability give way to increasing disability, loss of control and dependency then the adulation for Ms.Maynard’s decision is misplaced.
    Though I can sympathize with her wish to avoid the difficulties and struggle and pain of further decline, I am sorry that she did not know the value of continuing to bless the lives of others in new and different and more dependent and humbling ways in the months she had left.
    May she rest in peace. May her family be comforted and consoled in the bereavement which follows the death of a beloved family member no matter when or where it happens.

  • Brittany in Oregon made her choice about how she wanted to live and die. It was her right; no one else’s. Bethany in Iowa also made a choice about her life and death that was different. It was her right also; no one else’s. Those who want to stop living when the suffering becomes more than they want to bear should be able to do so. Those who want to live regardless of the suffering should be able to do so. There are too many religionists and individuals who want to tell others how they must live and die. They should not. Regardless of what Rev. Fitzgerald of the Catholic Church has to say about growth, overcoming and redemption through suffering, he can choose that for himself, but should not insist that others must follow his path.

  • Think on Eric’s words:

    “Eric Nov 3, 2014 at 11:41 am
    “redemptive suffering” . Explain that one to the dying child. Oh the arrogance of the faithful. They know no bounds.

    Hard to imagine JESUS saying: “I want you to suffer as you lay dying”.

  • What is the purpose of medicine? Is it to releave suffering or to prevent death? The answer has always been both, but can you have one without the other? Can it be ethical to releave suffering, and simultaneously cause death?

    I cannot imagine the sheer pain – literal, emotional, spiritual – that a terminal illness brings, especially for a young person. And so I do not judge the person who makes the choice to die early, as I cannot say what my emotions in such a moment would be.

    And yet something feels wrong. Medicine has abdicated its goal of healing and comforting and crossed over into killing. However well intentioned, we must ask ourselves whether this is a line we wish to cross. Should medicine itself not be a sacred craft of healing and comforting? Does physician assisted dying not step away from that fundamentally?

    However much I feel for young people (and older) with terminal illness, I cannot justify the intentional and deliberate extinguishing of life.

  • It seems as if you’ve answered your own question. If one equates suffering with lingering past the completion of certain milestones on their road to death due to terminal illness, shouldn’t medicine be used as a “sacred craft of healing and comforting?”

  • I came here on a referral from a friend whose views differ on his subject from mine. It is a lovely and a well-written piece. But I am sorry to say that I found it breathtakingly shallow and condescending in the nicest possible way. One example:
    ““Suffering” has no qualitative measure. Unlike physical pain — expressed with a grimace or a moan or a rational rating of 1 to 10 for the doctor making rounds — it’s psychological, it’s emotional.”
    At best that is word play. At worst it a deep moral failure because it fails to recognize that psychological suffering is real. It shockingly dismisses it as “not rational.” Pain from cancer is “not rational.” It is a response of certain cells to certain conditions precisely the same as depression is.
    By denying the value of what cannot be seen or measured the author posits a world in which the spiritual and emotional are “irrational” but one set of spiritual values is applied nonetheless.
    Trite, of dubious moral posture and trivializing. I think the author should retain the subject and withdraw the piece as an embarrassment.

  • “I am sorry that she did not know the value of continuing to bless the lives of others in new and different and more dependent and humbling ways in the months she had left. ”
    How depressingly condescending. You have no idea, none whatsoever, of what her physical and emotional abilities were at the end. Yet you choose to assume her state and then to judge her – and with a smirk at that.

  • Brittany was a beautiful soul who’s life and death can serve as a tender story of courage. Unless you have faced death at a young age, I have at 37 years old with a serious cancer, that continues to put me at risk of premature death, yes I still have an oncologist at age 55, you cannot understand what she went through. Even I, after living through nine months of continuous cancer treatment that I have survived 18 years later, cannot fully understand what Brittany went through in making the most difficult of choices, how best to end one’s life that is predetermined by disease to end.

    I have the utmost respect for Brittany, her husband, her parents, her friends, and yes even her choice of picking the way she would die. You may have a different opinion, that is okay, but please just send Brittany’s family only your love, nothing more. Until you are in Brittany’s situation facing a painful, lingering inevitable death, though you think you know what your decision is going to be, it may change when faced with the actual reality.

    “O Son of Being! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee…” ~Bahaullah