Suicide and the Fear of a Diminished Self

October 13, 2014

Suicides, particularly by those of celebrity status, make the headlines. In Robin Williams’ case this summer, the world mourned the loss of a man tormented but treated for mental illness and addiction. We will never know what drove him to his final act, but we suspect that deep psychic pain was at its root. The inelegance of his method suggests that he was as improvisational in death as he was on stage. For this we wept and wondered.

In the 1990s, Jack Kevorkian helped approximately 130 people end their lives. Under Michigan law he was convicted for second-degree homicide and served over eight years in prison. At the present time, only three states in the Union permit physician-assisted suicide, or “death with dignity,” as proponents prefer to call it.

In one of those states, Oregon, Brittany Maynard has set a deadline for her own death after learning that she has an untreatable, aggressive brain cancer. She now possesses prescription drugs, prescribed by a doctor, that will take her life “on her terms.” The date for this final act is November 1, or “when the pain becomes unbearable,” whichever comes first. Meanwhile, Ms. Maynard appears on a YouTube video to explain her decision and advocate for “death with dignity” laws in more states.

Naegeli’s law number 13: Just because something is legal does not make it moral or right.

My mind and heart ache for someone way too young to die. I hate cancer and, as a survivor myself, I hate the collateral damage it is wreaking in our midst. People have been dying since Adam and Eve, so that is nothing new and to be expected, but we fear its processes no less. Except for cases of sudden, accidental death, it is quite possible to diagnose sickness unto death or, after death, to find out what happened. As data are gathered, we even know how disease progresses in many cases. The availability of such knowledge may be helpful for discussing treatment options, but in cases such as Ms. Maynard’s, that same knowledge can raise the level of anxiety and fear to intolerable levels.

The common word used by Ms. Maynard, her husband, and her mother to describe how they felt about her decision to end her life on her terms was “relief.” Relief from what? we ask. Relief from physical pain. Relief from loss of control. Relief from a diminished self. Even relief of other’s pain, as Ms. Maynard put it, “I’m choosing to suffer less, to put myself through less pain, and reduce the pain of my family.” What she is looking for is a beautiful, peaceful, painless, dignified death.

As a pastor having attended the bedside of many dying patients over the years, I insist that death, in general, is rude and outrageous. Having said that, the most beautiful deaths I have witnessed are the ones around which a loving family has sacrificed, and served, and lovingly attended. These deaths have followed nature’s course in a final submission to the ways of God, which entail finishing this life in order to move into eternity. One person’s process of dying is an invitation to family and friends to live selflessly, even nobly, and is one universal means by which people can grow in grace and character.

What I am most concerned about, however, is the fear we might be carrying that in our dying state we become dependent, unlovable, or ugly. This is a fear of the diminished self, and its basis, I think, is disbelief that anyone could ever love me in that state or condition. It would be a very frightening thing to believe that no one in my life loves me unconditionally, for that is what fear of the diminished self is all about. We all enjoy a certain amount of love from others, but what if we fear that it is conditional love dependent on me being strong, beautiful, or healthy? And what if we simply do not want anyone to see us diminished by the ravages of disease because we fear rejection?

As an aside, I remember hearing the shocking news of Princess Diana’s accidental death in a car crash, and thinking several thoughts: We will never see Diana grow old; we will forever remember her has the young and beautiful princess. The public never saw pictures of her injured body (and it would have been incredibly bad taste to have published them). Do you not think that this is a secret wish we all have? To be remembered in our heroic youth, undiminished and still beautiful?

That would work, except that it is a colossal denial of death. Ms. Maynard desires to “enjoy [her] days, surrounded by those [she] loves,” but by choosing death she is removing herself from them and cutting short their opportunity to love her back. And she is assuming that by taking death into her own hands, she can mitigate its rudeness and outrage. She may be gone by then, but those left behind will still have to deal with death’s reality. As we all do, whether it is “beautiful” or not.

This is only the first installment on my thoughts . . . there are ethical implications, societal trends, and theological reflections to share. But once again, tomorrow I have been called back for another round of jury selection, so I don’t know if I will be able to write. I promise, my next blog will bring the Word to life and death.



5 Responses to “Suicide and the Fear of a Diminished Self”

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful reflection.

  2. emd5542 Says:

    Thank you, Mary, for the truth you convey that we cling to God’s presence in our suffering. I’ll continue to share and pray that listeners will grab hold.

  3. Lynnie Morgan Says:

    Beautifully expressed Mary! It has been Kevin’s and my joy to serve and love our daughter, Amy through the years of her disease’ degeneration. She has tought us about commitment, being brave, decision making, joy, success, failure and faith throughout her 37 year ordeal. And Joseph tought us about acceptance, loss, and what it was/is like to grieve with our community. I have loss both parents, a son, and in slow motion am loosing my daughter! Would I recomend “death with dignity”? I’m not sure dignity is an appropriate word to use in connection with death, and it robs everyone connected of that very thing!!!

  4. Jodie Says:

    So, was the life of Jesus taken from him, or did he voluntarily lay it down? If would read only Mark, I would conclude his life was taken from him, a death I can identify with, where one must ultimately accept the unacceptable, and suffer the unavoidable. But if I read only John, the ultimate act of power and control is to choose one’s own death on One’s own terms, as just another step in a long and arduous journey, as it were. In a way, the two Gospels offer the same contrasting views of death and dying. In a “both-and” sort of way, perhaps Jesus can be with us no matter which path we finally choose.

    • emd5542 Says:

      Jesus came to die for our sin and thus restore our relationship with God. He was sinless on earth and obedient to the Father and shed his life’s blood in a most public and excruciating way. And God the Father raised Jesus from the grave. When we accept Christ as Lord and Savior we receive the indwelling Holy Spirit as a down payment to eternal life in paradise. New life begins at that point. There is no way I can grasp God’s approval of suicide nor would I ever be so arrogant as to see my circumstances juxtaposed with those of Jesus the Messiah. I pray I’ve misunderstood you, Jodie, but I am compelled to respond.

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