Brittany Maynard’s death stirs thoughts about the gift of life

Categories: Editorial


My mother was a great teacher, but she taught some of her most important lessons after becoming ill and losing her ability to communicate

Much has been written about the suicide death Nov. 1 of Brittany Maynard, both by supporters of the choice made by the 29-year-old terminal brain cancer victim and by those who believe she made the wrong choice.

Many of the latter offered their prayers when they heard the news. And, several days before her death, Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample urged people in situations like Maynard’s not to give up hope, assuring them that “we are with you” and committed “to surround you with our love and compassion until the sacred moment when God calls you home.”


Joe Towalski, Editor, The Visitor

One of the most poignant reflections was written by Philip Johnson, a 30-year-old Catholic seminarian from the Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., who has the same cancer that Maynard did.

He knows what it’s like to walk in her shoes. His disease will likely progress to a point where he will no longer be able to communicate or care for himself. And, he takes solace in knowing that he is still loved and supported by God, the church, his family and his friends.

Still, he acknowledges at one point in his reflection: “I do not think anyone wants to die in this way.”

That statement made me think about my mother. No one wants to die the way she did either.

Hard lessons

I wrote about her situation at the time of her death in 2007. She had been living in Chicago when she went into sudden cardiac arrest one day at a rehabilitation center where she was recovering from an illness. It took a long time to restart her heart, starving her brain of essential oxygen. My mom lived through the experience, but she was never again able to speak or interact with others. For the next seven years, she lived in a nursing home. There was never any sign that she recognized me or anyone else who visited.

My mom, like so many other parents, grandparents and caring adults, taught me important lessons growing up about self-sacrifice and living out my faith even when it wasn’t easy or convenient.

Among the many things I wrote about my mom after her death was how I considered her a teacher — and some of the greatest lessons she imparted didn’t happen until she was robbed of the ability to communicate.

What did I learn from the last years of her life? That our lives are gifts from God which we don’t always have control over to the extent we’d like. That sometimes it’s OK to let ourselves become vulnerable and let others take care of us. That the strong bonds of love can’t be broken by illness, no matter how tragic, ugly or unfair it seems. And, that God is always there offering his support, even in the darkest times and in ways you may not even realize until later.

I don’t know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of people like Brittany Maynard or Philip Johnson.

But I do know this: Our lives are sacred gifts that impact so many other people in so many ways — family, friends, co-workers, parishioners, even strangers.

As Father Thomas Knoblach, a priest of our diocese, wrote a few weeks ago in this newspaper, “Our lives do not belong merely to ourselves,” and even a life that is brief “can be a beautiful and powerful statement about values that transcend our individual projects and plans.”

Ultimately, our lives belong to God alone, who gifted them to us. We are only stewards of the gift until, in the words of Archbishop Sample, the sacred moment when God chooses to call us home.

Let’s pray that we are the best stewards we can be of that gift for ourselves and for others.