This past Sunday was observed in many churches as Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, an opportunity to recognize and reaffirm a commitment to preserve life at its various stages, from conception on. This year, it took on a new meaning for me--2016 has brought with it the pain of losing two grandmothers in our family. While I am dedicated to seeing the horrors of abortion ended, I want to write a bit about end of life issues, and what I’ve learned over the past three weeks.
On New Year’s Eve, my husband and I received a call that his grandmother and great aunt were being airlifted to our local hospital after a tragic car accident. We rushed to the hospital, and the next several hours were painful as we waited for information on their conditions. The following day, my husband’s 83-year-old grandmother passed away, surrounded by her three children and two of her grandchildren.
The day of her funeral, I learned my grandmother had fallen and suffered a severe concussion and other injuries. Her health declined quickly at the hospital, and I arrived in time to tell her what I wanted her to know before she went into hospice care and her body began to slowly shut down. What I wanted her to know was that I loved her, and that I thought she was one of the strongest women I know.
Indeed, the night before, I had spent a little time telling my children how wonderful these two women were. Both of them lived the last 42 years of their lives husbandless--finding jobs, buying homes, taking one day at a time in the midst of situations that were no doubt agonizing. Their lives proved the faithfulness of God, and I was honored to tell my children their stories. These women loved Jesus, and are now in His presence. We have lamented their absence, while rejoicing at what they might be experiencing.
Yet much of what I learned about the sanctity of life through these experiences came not through grieving their deaths, but through seeing the care they were given as they were dying. Agonizing, confusing decisions had to be made, and I watched as they were made soberly, considering the dignity and value of these women. In the case of my husband’s grandmother, the process was much quicker, and the decisions a bit more obvious, although no less difficult.
For my grandmother, though, as her condition deteriorated, many ethical questions arose about whether or not to extend her life through a feeding tube, how much pain medication she could handle, and how to walk the line between making her comfortable and holding out hope that her condition might improve. I observed her sons, my dad and uncle, and their wives grieving at the pain she was experiencing. I saw the effects of nights spent by her bedside, a constant rotation so that she was never alone. I sat with my family as we sang her favorite hymns, unaware of whether or not she could even hear us. When she called out in pain, I placed my hand on her forehead and felt her relax at the knowledge that she wasn’t alone, even though she probably didn’t know who I was.
My husband’s great aunt survived the accident that took her sister, and she too was lovingly cared for by family and friends throughout her stay in the hospital. My husband’s aunt and uncle told her they would stay with her permanently, dedicating their lives to caring for a woman who needs full-time help.
I told my children how wonderful these women were, and it is true. But I would be teaching them the wrong lesson if they thought their great-grandmothers’ value was based on their strength. Because in their last moments, they had none. And yet they had great value—not based on their past, but on their humanness. Yes, they were loved because they had been great women and had loved their families well. In fact, one of the nurses caring for my grandmother told her (while she slept) that she was loved in a special way. He said it is so rare to see an elderly family member cared for in the way that she was. And while we can’t separate our love for these women from our experiences with them, at the end of life, they were not strong women. They lay in their hospital beds, their bodies literally broken, unable to speak. And yet they had dignity and value, given to them by their Creator. And I watched my father and his family sacrifice around the clock to affirm that dignity.
I confess these experiences have exposed my lack of care for the elderly. But I walked away with an intense respect for the nurses who care for their patients with gentleness and concern. I came out with gratitude for those who have sacrificed so much to care for my 96-year-old grandmother the past several years. And I came away with a glimpse of God’s value system—a system that calls adults to be like children, that commands respect and honor before the faces of the elderly (Leviticus 19:32), and that turns weakness into strength.
These days have not been easy ones, and we are still grieving. But I have learned a great deal in a short time about my own ambitions and what I mistakenly think are the important things. What a privilege to witness my family and my in-laws as they have, in their quiet way, preserved the sanctity of life. They have loved God and their neighbors, and it has inspired me to do the same.
For more thoughts on caring for and affirming the elderly and widows in our midst, see the two chapters by Kristie Anyabwile in the newly released book, Women on Life: A Call to Love the Unborn, Unloved and Neglected, edited by Trillia Newbell. I was honored to contribute a chapter to this book, but even more blessed to read the work by Trillia, Kristie, and many others, dealing with a range of issues and situations (foster care, adoption, blended families, abortion, high-risk pregnancies, talking to kids about sex, and more).
*Image credit: Kellen Rice