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Taking Death Back: A Closer Look at Faith, Suffering, and Suicide

May 29, 2017 by

In a recent article about planned death in Canada (“At His Own Wake, Celebrating Life and the Gift of DeathNew York Times), people talk about “taking death back into our own hands.” They throw a party, light candles, and present blessings – and then the doctor comes, syringes in hand, and a life is ended.

There is a sick man who doesn’t have much longer to live. There are eagle feathers and prayer shawls. Good friends and good food and hugs and tears. But someone is going to be killed, and even the doctor who administers the dying man his lethal medicine acknowledges as much. “But that’s not how I think of it,” she says defiantly. “It’s my job. I do it well.”

If this all sounds too good to be true, it is. Was death ever meant to be in our own hands, and is taking charge of it in this way a good idea? As a physician assistant who has attended the dying for well over twenty-five years, I am convinced that it is not.

When we die – and how we die – has never been up to us, but has always been firmly in the hands of an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator. This doesn’t mean that death isn’t ugly: over the centuries, Christians have referred to it as the “last enemy,” and indeed it is. Hence the current push for a painless death – a “perfect” death, as the Times called it – and the perceived need for euthanasia-on-demand, now legal in Canada and the Netherlands, but coming to an American hospital (or hospice) near you before very long.


When we die – and how we die – has never been up to us, but has always been firmly in the hands of an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator.


Proponents of “medically assisted dying” speak with reverent gratitude about those who have paved the way: Brittany Maynard of California, for example – the young woman who, in 2014, chose to end her own life rather than suffer with brain cancer – was hailed as “extraordinary” and a “hero” by the likes of CNN and People magazine.

Doctors likewise gush with euphemisms. They compare death to birth (yes, there are similarities, but also big differences). They call it a “gift.” And they refer to the “procedures” they have performed as a “beautiful thing.”

Reuben Zimmerman with his wife Margrit before she died
Reuben and Margrit Zimmerman

Yet those of us who believe in a life hereafter – who see the body as more than a mass of quivering cells, a mere collection of blood and tissue and bone – know that the answer to the throes of death comes not in a syringe of midazolam, but in a living faith that transcends all human ideas about suffering, and our ability to bear it. For us, courage is measured not by a decision to opt out of suffering, but to embrace what has been laid on us, and to trust that it will not be more than we can bear.

My own wife, Margrit, was such an example. Stricken by small bowel cancer at the age of forty-three, she fought back for twenty-two months until it was clear that she could not win. At that point, she faced death squarely, and with a calm bravery that came from far beyond herself.


For us, courage is measured not by a decision to opt out of suffering, but to embrace what has been laid on us, and to trust that it will not be more than we can bear.


“Are you scared?” I once asked her, weeks before the end. “No,” she said, “I don’t think so. I believe Jesus is coming to fetch me.”

We celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in December 2014, and by January, she could manage only yogurt and broth. By February, it was weak tea, fortified with honey and half-and-half. By March, she was gone.

Did she receive expert medical care? Of course. And there is no reason that others like her should not, either. But look at the enthusiasm of nascent euthanasia practitioners, and you have to wonder why we are suddenly abandoning the inexpensive and mostly effective interventions of palliative care that conventional medicine only just recently embraced.

“This is my job. I do it well.” In the Netherlands, it is the same: people speak of compassion and dignity and choice and humanity – all while killing those who have lost the will to live, or who are too scared to meet God at the moment he will decide.

Much of the current debate centers on the ideas of autonomy and independence. If it’s my body, who are you to suggest that I should suffer another ten years with multiple sclerosis – or heart disease, diabetes, mental illness, or rheumatoid arthritis? But are our lives really our own? And aren’t we turning our backs on God when we tell him that it’s over – that we’re quitting, and that there is no way we’re going to finish the race that we’ve started?

Margrit suffered terribly in her last ten days, but never once flinched or complained; instead, she radiated peace and love, often through shining eyes, until her last agonizing breath.

She went Home surrounded by her family: her parents, my parents, her siblings, and our five children. There was singing, and there were prayers, and plenty of tears, and we prayed often that she would go – that she might somehow be released – but we never, ever considered for even a fleeting moment that we should somehow push things along, or take things into our own hands.

Like those willing to await the natural birth of a baby, we waited for God’s moment, and we knew that just as those around a laboring woman rejoice when the child bursts out of the womb, those waiting for Margrit in heaven would break into singing when she crossed her Jordan.

Hers is not the only death I’ve attended, nor does she hold a monopoly on peace or bravery. Faith may be a gift – one that we moderns too often belittle or even despise – but it is there for all of us.


Like those willing to await the natural birth of a baby, we waited for God’s moment, knowing that those waiting for Margrit in heaven would break into singing when she crossed her Jordan.


“Don’t be afraid,” the Psalmist says: “Though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you will fear no evil.” In the same way, Jesus tells his followers to take heart: “You will have trouble, but I have overcome!” “Don’t be afraid; in my father’s house are many rooms that I have prepared for you.” And best of all, “Though you die, yet shall you live.”

None of us wants to suffer needlessly. But neither can we ever avoid pain and suffering completely. Jesus himself – the very Son of God – had to endure the bitter agony of the cross, and it was through this ordeal that the world was redeemed.

Can we presume to escape with anything less? Alice von Hildebrand says that when we look at suffering in this way, it becomes a privilege: we suffer alongside the Savior. “Take up your cross and follow me,” He urges us – “and I will give you the crown of eternal life.”

Absent a living faith, it is entirely understandable that people want to take death back into their own hands. But as followers of Christ who have been charged with preaching the Good News to all people – and who know that there is, to quote the apostle Paul, a “far better way” – we cannot stand silently by.


Reuben Zimmerman is a physician assistant. He lives at Woodcrest, a Bruderhof community in Rifton, NY.

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  • Oftentimes, it's the drugs (mainly Schedule II narcotics) radiating love and peace more than anything. Unmedicated death is often gritty and not conducive to viewer comfort. We need to ask ourselves why we, the living, are needing to idealize the dying experience to one that "radiates love and peace" as opposed to the less warm, fuzzy and noble reactions. If people are under sedation, particularly high levels of sedation, they more than likely will appear to be euphoric. Not Jesus as much as basic drugs.

    Ingrid
  • Thank you for this clearly-written and encouraging article. The encouragement is the decisive factor, I feel: as Christians, we need to help one another, both in preparing for life’s difficult chapters, and then in actually getting through them. And in the case of those who don’t know that there is a better way (than assisted suicide), we need to be positive and encouraging in bringing it to their attention.

    Katy von Thaler
  • Thank you Reuben for your article, wonderful words and very well said. Your Margrit is a role model for me and always will be!!

    Bethany Kurtz
  • A very good article . What a great example of true faith and Love . Thank you .

    Denis Jackson
  • This is beautifully written. As a Christian and a nurse it rings true in my heart. My parents both died in the Bruderhof and one thing I treasure in my memories is that they got great love and exceptional care until the moment God gave them their last breath. It is how it should be.

    Angie Merchant
  • When we no longer see our lives as a gift on loan from the Giver of life whose plan we fit into we end up taking life—our own and that of others—according to our plan which everyone else is obliged to fit into.

    Charles Moore