COLUMN: Ed Olfert — May 1, 2014

Ed Olfert
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Terri Shiavo died nine years ago.

At the time, I was a full time minister, and also part of a morning coffee gathering, mostly elderly men who were engaged in a major renovation project at the church.

The conversation on one morning found roots in the controversy of the day, the much reported story of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who was then lying in an unresponsive state, as courts and families fought over her right to live versus her right to die, arguing over should decide.

Around the coffee table that morning, there were a variety of opinions expressed, all with considerable passion. Someone turned to me and asked, "So, what does our leader think?" My response, not so eloquently offered as might be expected of a spiritual leader, was that I had little comment about what should happen in Florida, but that I took some comfort from the fact that the struggle was a hard one, that decision making around life or death should always be given deepest consideration.

I sensed that my words hadn't satisfied, there was a comment about sitting on the fence. It was certainly a reminder to me that this was a serious issue, and that I, representing the church, had better not shy away.

Again, I had, and have, no need to comment on what should or should not have happened around that hospital bed in Florida. Sometimes these things simply turn out very painfully, and are exploited by a whole number of hangers-on with agendas. Meanwhile, all over the world, decisions about end of life options are made every minute, every day, with people, including family, staff and professionals, simply doing the best they know how.

Those of us who meander the Christian path have no doubt that all life is a gift of God, that where there is life, God is also present. As such, life is to be respected, protected, cherished.

On the other hand, the Lenten season close behind us has much to teach about walking toward death confidently. Death of any kind needs to hold no fear for us. Somewhere between the holiness of life and the assurance of victory over death, somewhere there exists a tension that is offered to the church.

Twenty five years ago, my maternal grandparents died within a year of each other. They were old, had lived well. It was my first time of sitting at the edge of a group of family as decisions were being made about end of life care. In accordance with my grandparents’ wishes, in the comfortable agreement of their gathered children, decisions were reached about care being focused on comfort and pain control, as opposed to extending life.

Yet my close proximity and my naivety to that process raised questions for me about sanctity of life, health-care decision making, and how decisions are reached. I recall trying to open the topic in a family conversation only to encounter a defensive uncle who thought I was trying to second-guess the decisions that were made around the bedside of his parents.

My wondering instead went in this direction. While it was deemed appropriate, in the case of my 97-year-old grandfather to withhold "life-extending" procedures, what if he had been 77? 57? 37?

There are, obviously, decisions to be made. There is struggle to be engaged. It isn't enough to suggest that life will simply end when it is the appointed time. Sometimes we simply accept that, and sometimes we bring huge resources to prevent that. How is faith relevant to decision making in that struggle?

Twenty years ago my father died. He was 74, a little less “old." His death was partly of his choosing. Having suffered a major stroke some nine years before, his life had become a mere shadow of the robust existence that had always been my Pa. In a final expression of that fierce independence that had always defined him, he made one of the few choices that he could. He began to refuse the large pile of pills that mom set before him at every meal. Within a few weeks, he was hospitalized, pneumonia set in, he lapsed into a coma, and this time the family that gathered to make decisions were my generation, sitting together with my mom.

No more food, no more liquids. A sister with much palliative care experience advised us of how it would go. So it did, peacefully, for everyone.

The questions, however, haven’t stopped.

Have we thought, calmly enough, about the tension between active and passive intervention? Do those distinctives offer a clear-cut line honouring life that represents God, or dishonouring that life?  Where is there room for, again, calmly, considering abortion questions, capital punishment, euthanasia, all of those topics that are typically attacked with so much passion?

I suggest that sitting with all of the questions, wrestling with all of the questions, is not synonymous with sitting on the fence. Rather, it is holy, it is spiritual work.

A good friend has been known to offer the nugget, “Yes, it might be very hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or bad.”

Let this conversation continue. Let it include much listening. Let it be hard.

Geographic location: Florida

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