As states around the country consider legalizing physician-assisted suicide, “death with dignity” looks markedly different for patients under the care of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
In her nearly 30
years with the order that cares for the “elderly poor,” Sister
Constance Veit, L.S.P. says she has never seen or heard a patient asking
for a lethal prescription.
“I think that’s because they are
surrounded with a caring human and spiritual presence in our homes,” she
told an audience at the Heritage Foundation.
Sister Constance was
part of a 2015 panel in Washington, D.C., on caring respectfully for
the elderly sick. The event was titled “Living Life to Its Fullest.”
End-of-life care was placed in the national spotlight the
previous year, when 29 year-old Brittany Maynard publically announced
her decision to take a lethal prescription rather than suffer terminal
In describing her situation, Maynard used terms that
Sister Constance says she has never heard from the patients under her
care, like “purposeless prolonged pain” and “prolonged involuntary
suffering and shame.”
“I have never heard any of our residents use the word ‘shame’ in the context of their suffering and dying,” she said.
story caught the attention of many and brought about a national debate
on physician-assisted suicide, which is already legal in some states.
The Colorado state senate defeated an assisted suicide bill last year,
but now voters this fall will be faced with a ballot measure seeking to
legalize it. Washington, D.C. City Council will also consider an
assisted suicide proposal in the coming days.
The Death With Dignity National Center is pushing for these laws around the country.
say the laws would unfairly pressure the elderly and disabled to end
their lives. They charge such laws would normalize suicide as a solution
to problems and decrease respect for life in American culture.
for the elderly in their final days, the Little Sisters of the Poor say
that a patient and his or her loved ones can experience a tremendous
amount of good in their last days together that would be lost if they
decided to take their life prematurely.
Patients of the Little
Sisters are cared for and pain is relieved – all that can be done for
the sick patient is attempted. The patient is accompanied around the
“I would say that the room of a dying person almost becomes
the spiritual center of our house at that point for those days,” Sister
Constance said. “Our home is their home.”
The sisters make sure to
provide a “peaceful, prayerful presence” for the dying patient “for as
long as it takes until they make that passage from this life to the
And it can be a rich time of healing for the family. Sister
Constance recalled how the sisters kept an eight-day vigil for one
dying woman. Although she was not conscious, members of her family
reconciled with each other during that time, and some even came back to
the faith who had fallen away.
“There’s so much to be shared,
learned, and gained through these intense moments that you cheat people
out of when a life is ended prematurely,” the sister reflected.
majority of the family members involved with the residents who pass
away in our homes experience it as a moment of grace and a thing of
beauty,” she added, “it’s rare that they feel it was anything other than
a very powerful spiritual and human moment.”