A recent morning brought the news that 29 year-old Brittany Maynard had ended her life rather than continue what she perceived to be intolerable suffering from an incurable brain tumor. About an hour later I watched a sports report on college freshman, Lauren Hall who the previous day fulfilled her dream of playing in a college basketball game on the team she had been recruited for despite the fact that her doctors said she had only weeks to live as the result of an incurable brain tumor.

Although my only knowledge of these two women is what I see in the media, I was first struck by the similarities between them. Both young, white women with incurable brain tumors who seem to have good social supports, no psychological issues and would seem to have had the opportunity to have access to some of the best health care the world has to offer. Both seem to be in full control of their own lives despite their tragic diseases. Despite all of those major similarities, they seem to have opted to take starkly different roads to their own death. To be clear, I am not implying anything about the goodness, badness, rightness or wrongness of either road. Quite the contrary. My point is the difficulty of determining the right and wrong for any given person despite so many similarities or of making judgments in that regard. One of the lessons I continued to relearn as a chaplain with people with terminal cancer is how ways of approaching the end of one’s life that seemed “wrong” to me gave great meaning and comfort to some patients who chose them.

So what is going on here? My suspicion is that a key issue is how each of us defines and understands “suffering” in our own lives and the lives of others. The reports on Brittany Maynard focused on suffering from physical symptoms. Yet, Lauren Hill suffers from many physical issues. In Brittany’s case, that suffering was at least portrayed by the media as dominating her life and her decision making. In Lauren’s case, that suffering was seemingly put aside and diminished in significance in the service of another goal. Why the difference? Social or psychological factors don’t seem to account for it.

Dame Cicely Saunders taught us many years ago that pain (and suffering) exists in four domains. The one unaccounted for here is the spiritual or existential domain. This domain includes the part of our lives in which meaning making resides. So the degree of any one person’s perceived suffering may not be at all correlated with the intensity of pain in the physical, social or psychological dimensions. That correlation may depend on the meaning of the pain or distress. I have seen many patients for whom physical pain actually reduces their suffering because they believe that any physical pain negates some amount of sin thy have committed and thus brings them closer to being granted eternal life in heaven. Other patients take great comfort from the belief that their illness is caused by their God because it proves that this God is still in control and it is the idea of that control that gives them comfort in their lives. Neither of these beliefs matches my belief system but they clearly reduce suffering for many.
I would submit that the spiritual/existential dimension has more power over how we make decisions about how our lives will come to conclusion (when we are allowed that decision) than is commonly appreciated. Further, as little as we understand the physical, social, and psychological dimensions of suffering, we understand the existential/spiritual dimension far less.

I have no idea why Brittany Maynard and Lauren Hill have apparently taken such different paths and I don’t think I or maybe anyone can ever truly know because only they can appreciate what constitutes “suffering” in their lives and where they each find meaning and comfort. For others to make judgments about the degree of their suffering and how it could be/should be coped with is dangerous territory indeed because we know so little about it and virtually never include it in the calculus of how health care is delivered.

The point here is not to come to this understanding in order to be able to guide all people facing deaths terminal illness to some “best” outcome. The point is to be able to better understand the existential/spiritual dimension and incorporate it in care in order to help patients to the decisions that seem best to them and to make the living out of those decisions possible. Maybe we can come to the day when patients will make informed decisions about what best reduces their suffering and live those decisions out so routinely that it will not be a matter that warrants national news coverage.

The Rev. George Handzo, BCC, CSSBB
Handzo Consulting, LLC