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Grieving after MAiD. Thoughts for families and friends who've lost loved ones to euthanasia.
No matter what you think about assisted suicide, the procedure results in death and leaves families and friends behind.
My aunt died the first week of November. She scheduled the day and time of her death at her assisted-living home. The cause of death was doctor-assisted suicide, otherwise known as medical assistance in dying or MAiD.
No matter what you think about assisted suicide, the procedure results in death and loss. MAiD leaves friends and families behind.
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After doctor assisted suicide, communities and families are forever changed because a life is lost. And in the public discussion about individual rights, or dignity in life and death, this is often overlooked.
So, I share the following thoughts for anyone else who has lost or is about to lose a friend or family member to euthanasia. You must grapple with what took place.
I’m no expert on grief. I’ve just experienced it my own way. My intent here is similar to my aim when I wrote about grieving as an Enneagram One after my father died in the pandemic: to provide camaraderie or comfort in the words.
Prepare for confusion.
I, personally, couldn’t shake an image of my aunt going to the gallows, in the hours before her scheduled appointment with death. What was most troubling was that she chose to go there herself.
But don’t you see, even your metaphor indicates her medical condition was a life sentence. This is where the confusion multiplies.
We shirk the thought of someone being punished for a crime with the sentence of death. Especially in Canada. Any Member of Parliament who calls for the death penalty would probably be censured in Parliament and excoriated in the media. We pride ourselves on a justice system that is free of capital punishment.
And to the south, in states where the death penalty exists, whenever someone is about to get a lethal injection because of a crime, without fail, there are protests. People outside the penitentiary waving signs, imploring the state to stop it’s heavy hand of justice. Even for the greatest murderers and offenders.
Our prison system doesn’t give lethal injections, but our health care system does. It uses the same drug given to criminals on death row.
This causes cognitive dissonance.
You will feel helpless.
There is little action you can take to stop the procedure. Because this is a decision between the individual and a small medical team, you can’t do much, if anything at all.
In the movies, like in the example above, there’s a sense that there’s a place for public and active protest. People doing everything they can to stop the hand of the state to end a life.
I’m reminded of the famous case of Karla Faye Tucker a death row inmate in Texas who converted to Christianity in prison after her terrible crimes. The media picked the story up. Churches held prayer vigils. People around the world wrote the Governor. There were unified voices across the political spectrum, denominations, the US, Canadian and international borders shouting loudly for her to live and hoping the arm of the State would be stopped in the name of mercy.
But what do you do when your family member has decided to die and their doctor has agreed it’s the right medical decision and the state and most of the media say, “this is dignified healthcare”?
What can you do? The apparatus of the Canadian medical and justice system quietly fulfills the procedure. Even if you know about the procedure (and you may be a friend or family member who only learned about the procedure after your loved one was gone, for which I am so sorry), who can you run to?
You can run to God.
This might be your only recourse and perhaps the best. It’s humbling and complex to go to God in prayer about medical assistance in dying.
What do you pray? An incomplete list of the prayer places I went:
God let your will be done (I kinda think I know what your will is), so….
Discomfort my loved one so that they put the decision of life and death back into your sovereign hands.
God, stay the hand of the doctor or the nurse.
God, I pray that my loved one would be one of the 12%1 of individuals who back out of the procedure even minutes before it’s scheduled to take place.
God, I pray that my loved one won’t just go through with it because people have travelled, gathered, expect a certain outcome and follow through with it out of politeness or courtesy.
God, show my loved one how you see their circumstance and how you view their life.
God, I pray that the doctor or nurse would feel a heavy conviction about what their hand is set to do and that they would not feel peace about “playing God.”
God, could you somehow disrupt the supply chain here, so that the drugs don’t arrive?
God, if my loved one doesn’t want to go through with it, I pray that they would have the courage and ability to communicate this before it’s too late and that the people in the room would listen.
This, and more. What you may encounter as you petition a loving and merciful God is the mysterious nature of divine power and human will. I sure did.
In fact, it’s a wall you may slam up against.
Up to the minute she died we prayed for life, knowing God could change the circumstances surrounding my aunt’s death. However, the decision and the plan was in motion for some time. Your loved one might set their face like flint toward the calvary of their own making.
God have mercy, is the truest and only prayer you may be able to pray.
You may wonder if you did enough, in their life and after the decision for MAiD.
Because the medical reality can be so difficult and overwhelming (requiring expert, outside help) it’s easy to feel like there’s little you can offer to help or to do. Your proximity in relationship and geography adds to the complexity.
Of course you want to alleviate the loved one’s very real pain and suffering (which may be unimaginable and so very awful).
So, you may ask: did I and the community around them do enough to support them in their lifetime before they scheduled their appointment with death? Am I doing enough or can I do anything to influence their decision? What’s my place?
It isn’t easy territory, any of it. Stumble through your questions and prayers but pray. Once they're gone there's really nothing you can do so act out of love for them while they are here.
If possible, see your loved one before they die.
Not everyone gets the chance. I’m so sad for others who’ve learned about their loved one’s death (and its cause) only after the fact.
If someone you love has scheduled MAiD, I encourage you to see them before they die.
I’m grateful I had the opportunity to see my aunt before she died. It was the deepest connection I had with her in my lifetime. There was so much love in the room, and this I treasure.
Who is this consolation for—her? my brothers who I went into the room with? me?— I don’t know. What I know is that we didn’t enter the room as anti-euthanasia advocates. We went in as family. As people who loved her and cared for her present, her past, her life and her future.
We went into the room as people who not only saw the value of her life but named it. She shared memories and stories and jokes. We laughed. We spoke life. We prayed together. We read scripture. We shared family photos.
I believe that mattered and that matters.
It goes from theoretical to concrete, real fast.
Everything went from abstract to actual in a moment. There’s no perfect way to navigate any of this.
I think we need to lean into talking about it, both in theory and in our lived experience. I know there are people who think this is all about dignity and their lived experience contradicts mine.
I zoom out from the individual experience and look at what it means for us, as a society, and I have even more concerns.
Be aware and be prepared for this to become more and more common in Canadian life. MAiD is expanding in March 2024 to include mental health as a sole condition and these complexities of grief will be multiplied throughout society.
Be prepared for how unequipped people are to talk about this type of grief after this type of death.
People are not ready. Canadians are not ready. The church isn't ready. I was not ready. Your friends and family are not ready.
This is not a criticism. (I've written earlier about how grief is performative, awkward, and just weird to walk through in part due to our general lack of preparation for death. MAiD just adds other layers and is like all that on steroids).
While I don't have a place in my brain for MAiD and I don't want the mental upgrade in order for it to become part of “regular” life, that doesn’t matter. It’s here.
Know that if you share about the procedure or the tragedy of a loved one’s death by MAiD, it will be really hard for people to know how to talk about it. There's shock. There's shame. There’s stigma. There's confusion. There's a whole trove of feelings and experiences around it.
People bring their confusion, fears, their beautiful awkward selves into an already loaded issue. That’s baked into this grieving process, so, be aware.
I feel for you, friend. I’m here to listen or stand quietly to acknowledge your sadness and pain.
No matter what the details or your thoughts about MAiD, your loved one is gone. That hurts. I’m so sorry for your loss.
May God meet you there, in the grief. His tender mercy, present in all stages and moments of life mingles with all the complexities of this loss, including all the what-ifs, if-onlys and the whys. The anger and the fear. Moments when you feel helpless and your circumstances surreal. The happy memories too.
For me, inviting God in, to the most tender and personal space of grief, a place of mutual acquaintance, is comforting. I hope in the midst of all that stuff, above all else, you find a personal way to invite God in.
However you've arrived at this article, whether seeking insight into the grief process around MAiD or mourning the loss of a loved one yourself, I hope you've found some fellowship in these words.
The 2022 Canadian government report on MAiD notes that “For 12.1% of withdrawals (28 individuals), withdrawal occurred just prior to the MAID procedure when asked to provide their final consent.” I wonder what “consent” here means, both to a medical professional and to a patient; how does it different for people in great pain with disability.