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Fouad Abou-Rizk
Personal Writing

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Learning to Value Suffering and a Natural Death

This article was originally written and published in April 2018.
“Lord have mercy on me.”
I remember a weekend in my life where I wished I was dead, would die, had already died. My mouth was newly wired shut from a broken jaw and the pain was unbearable. I couldn’t receive any more pain medicine because I had already been given the full, prescribed amount. This was two years ago in February 2016 and I was 19 years old. I spent that weekend on the couch under the care of my parents.
Like all other people, I had to go to the bathroom.
Well the couch wasn’t in the bathroom, and whenever I placed my feet on the ground and attempted to put any weight on them, my jaws would convulse maniacally. I had an idea. Through writing messages in a text-to-speech app on my phone, I asked my parents if they could get a wheeled chair from another room. They did and I was able to get on the wheeled chair, get wheeled to the bathroom, and do my thing. My jaws were convulsing uncontrollably the entire time. When I got back onto the couch, my parents brought out the ice packs. After five to ten minutes of the ice packs on my cheeks, the convulsions stopped. Until I had to get back up again.
“I can’t deal with it.”
That’s one of the many challenging things I wrote to my parents that night. It’s still in my Notes app on my iPhone. I had thought that surely death would be better than to suffer like this. Over the next few weeks, my suffering was lessened, and I slowly got better.
This made me think, “what about the people who feel like that every day, and they are not going to get better?” For the people suffering from chronic illnesses like multiple sclerosis that has no cure and no effective treatment? You only get worse until you die, but death doesn’t come quick. People live with that disease for decades, but at a certain point, the point that my aunt has been at for many years, they are bedridden and cannot do much. But they’re not dying either.
I thought they should be able to die, to end their own lives. I had experience the depths of physical suffering and understood the pain it brings to the mind, the heart, and the spirit.
I experienced the sadness of the doctor telling me that I’m going to feel like this, being helpless in the face of immense bodily suffering, for four to six weeks. What about the rest of your life?
As a Catholic, the Church teaches that our lives should not be forced to end unnaturally, even in our most dire sufferings, even when there is no hope for improvement and no hope for a soon death, whether that is by our own choice, or the choice of family or medical professionals. The church teaches that there is redemptive value in our suffering and that our suffering unites us with Jesus who suffered immensely as he was flogged, beaten, and crucified. They teach that because of Jesus’ sacrificial death, we could be spared from the eternal suffering that we would face as a consequence of our sins, our disobedience of God, in Hell.
Choosing to end your own life, usually in the face of immense physical pain and terminal illness is called assisted suicide or euthanasia. After experiencing what I had been through, I thought the Church was wrong on this one.
How can they say that I can’t end my own suffering? That it is wrong and immoral?
For a while I got really pissed at people when I discussed my objections with them. All they could say is “it’s just wrong.” They couldn’t really back up their perspective beyond that.
In the weeks following my injury, nobody could relate to me. My best friend talked to me about how he felt sad after he broke his foot, but a broken foot simply cannot compare to a broken jaw. Canon was a rapper who I was a big fan of, and one night in December 2014 he fell forty feet off of a highway overpass after pulling over to help someone who had crashed on the side of the road.
He survived, but his next several months were horrible, including a broken, now permanently curved jaw. He spent the two months after his injury in the hospital, and the third month at home under constant care. Three weeks after my surgery, in March 2016 I was able to meet him at a concert. He took me backstage and talked to me for over an hour.
His words made a difference like no one else’s. He said I’m going to become a stronger person because of this suffering. I had never felt weaker and did not believe him. But he was right.
The first song he released in his recovery was “Grateful.” The hook goes “Whatchu know about your life passing by, right before your eyes, right before your eyes, see I gotta be grateful, I gotta be grateful.” Canon was grateful not only in that his life was spared, but in the redemptive power that his suffering caused him to become a stronger person.
In the fall of 2016 I started asking my pastor, Father Matthew about visiting the sick. I knew what it was like to suffer and wanted to be with those who did. He took me with him to a nursing home one day after mass, and I picked up a form to become a volunteer.
From January to November 2017 until I left the town in December I spent almost every Saturday afternoon in the Foley Center at Chestnut Ridge.
I was around many elderly people with a variety of disabilities. Some of their disabilities were extreme: some physical, some mental, and some with both. Everyone was in a wheelchair, with the exception of very few residents who used walkers. My primary work there was to assist in their afternoon activities, which was exercise and games, but I also spent a lot of time talking to and getting to know the residents.
One of them was a 94-year-old woman whose physical health had severely deteriorated from the early to late summer 2017. She always reached out her hand when she saw people, so sometimes I would take her hand and kneel down next to her.
One time I was holding her hand and with every exhale she said “Ow.” That was hard to hear.
This woman is suffering so much and there’s nothing I can do about it, at least physically. As I kept talking to her, she saw my crucifix necklace and said several times, “that’s a beautiful cross.” She also repeatedly told me “God loves you.” She was a very graceful woman and has since died, but I thought her words were incredible.
She was someone whose life was marred by her physical suffering, telling me, an able bodied young man, over and over again, “God loves you.”
In the past year, my grandfather’s mental health has severely deteriorated due to dementia, a terrible mental illness. The only people he knew within the months leading up to his death are my grandmother, who was his wife of sixty years, and his brother who has been dead for over fifteen years. In the last few weeks of his life, he ate much less and lost a lot of weight. He slept not only at night, but also in the mornings and the afternoons. He was aggressive and had hallucinations that he was a soldier (he served in the Army in the occupation of Germany in 1950–51).
One thing that was prevalent in discussions with my grandmother about his condition is in acknowledging that his mental health was essentially no longer present, figuring out what can be done to preserve his physical health in order to prolong and maintain his life. How we could get him to consume sufficient amounts of food and drink so that his body will not fail to function.
After having in the past thought through my own suffering that another person’s should be able to be ended with assisted suicide or euthanasia, when it came to my grandfather I thought, “we cannot give up on him. God wouldn’t want us to.”
I simply knew it was the right thing to do.
On February 28th he died of pneumonia after spending several days in the hospital after having fallen. Part of his death involved a decision my grandmother, mother, and aunts made to remove him from life support, which is accepted by the Church because it is a natural death. Over a period of hours his breathing slowed and eventually stopped, and he died. May the Lord have mercy on him.
The Catholic Church teaches us that God instills in each person a basic knowledge of the difference between right and wrong. Almost every culture and religion has the rule to “love your neighbor as yourself.” God revealed a lot of these basic truths in the Ten Commandments, which includes common sense things that are historically universally immoral in almost every culture: killing, stealing, adultery, lying, etc.
In the introduction to his 1995 writing Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II wrote,
“Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom 2:14–15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree.”
He also said,
“At the same time a new cultural climate is developing and taking hold, which gives crimes against life a new and-if possible-even more sinister character, giving rise to further grave concern: broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom, and on this basis they claim not only exemption from punishment but even authorization by the State, so that these things can be done with total freedom and indeed with the free assistance of health-care systems.”
Amazon Original Series “The Man in the High Castle,” takes place in a dystopian world of 1960s America in which the Axis Powers of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan won World War II and jointly rule the world. The eastern United States is part of the Reich and the west is within the Empire of Japan. In one scene, the character Joe Blake is driving across the American Reich and stops in a town where it appears to be snowing.
He asked someone what is going on and is told that they burn the elderly and the crippled on that day of the week.
The man who said that to him did not take it as significant, rather as normal. During their reign in Europe, the Nazi’s not only killed millions of Jews, they also euthanized the disabled and crippled.
If euthanasia becomes more accepted, not just for those terminally ill, but for people with other diseases which it is being advocated for such as Dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s, which lead to death over years or decades, could we be desensitized to the dignity of life as it reaches its end, or even the poor health that comes with old age? Could euthanasia become accepted as normal and become the standard in 20 years? We cannot let that happen.
At the end of every night I write down my prayer intentions. I conclude my prayers by saying.
“Have mercy on those who suffer, give them peace, hope, healing, and loving people to support them.”
From my experience, those were the key things that helped me endure. Enduring is the only thing I could do. For five weeks I could not take a single action to make myself get better any faster. And enduring is what people with diseases that are going to kill them within six months or within thirty years must accept.
They can have peace in knowing that no matter what happens, God loves and cares for them, and that will never go away. They can have hope that things will get better, if not in this life, then in Heaven. They can pray for healing for their body and their mind. If it never comes, you can still have peace and hope. And hopefully you have loving family and friends to support you, to hold your hands when you can’t bear the pain. But we can’t give up.
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