Elisabeth Elliot (if you don’t know who she was, google her!) died last month on the 15th June. Her death may have come as a relief to those around her, who watched her battle against dementia for the last ten years of her life.
It is because of diseases such as this that some would advocate assisted suicide on the assumption that it is kinder to die with dignity than to live with interminable suffering. On 11th September, MPs will vote on the issue of the assisted suicide Bill, the day following the World Suicide Prevention Day, ironically. This led me to the question: was Elisabeth Elliot’s death dignified?
What dignity is and what it is not
Dignity is defined as “the state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect.”
Dignity is our human value.
Dignity is our human worth.
Dignity is not defined by us.
Dignity is defined by God.
If true dignity is inherent to a life created by, and in the image of God, then our circumstances, however painful, cannot dictate our level of dignity.
Dementia, a fate worse than death?
Well in a sense, yes. Dementia is a fate worse than death for Christians, because as Christians we know that heaven will be a place without pain or mourning, without sickness or tears (Revelation 21:4). I want to attempt to show that suffering, and in the case of this article, dementia, doesn’t necessarily equate to an undignified death. I want to attempt to do this with grace, and albeit limited, understanding.
Beauty and dignity in weakness
When my Grandma was alive she also suffered from the disease and although I didn’t know her as well as I would have liked, it saddened me to watch her and the pain felt by my Dad and my two aunties as they watched their beloved Mum suffering in this way. But to call my Grandma’s frailty and vulnerability undignified does not do justice to the fact that there was beauty, and even dignity in her weakness. In the treasured moments when she would smile or say a resounding “Amen” after the vicar had read a passage to her. It encouraged me to hear that although she didn’t recognise me anymore, she would light up at the sound of an old hymn she still recognised on the radio. But those were not her defining moments. She was defined by God, and although she may have become a stranger to us, she was no stranger to him. He knew her and loved her with an immensity far greater than her suffering, and she loved him in return.
The greatest in the kingdom
So was Elisabeth Elliot’s death undignified? If losing the ability to walk, communicate or feed yourself is undignified, then yes. But ultimately isn’t that how we all begin the journey that we call life? Although looking after someone with dementia may have been loosely compared with looking after a child, is it not children that Jesus esteemed? And in so doing, does he not call them worthy and dignified above all others?
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:1-5)
If our dignity is God-given, we cannot ultimately lose our dignity, because it is at the essence of our being. No matter what happens in life or in death, if we are in him, he will always deem us to be precious, valued and loved by him. Elisabeth Elliot and my Grandma both died with dignity, despite dementia, because God in his faithfulness, deemed them worthy of honour, worthy of his love.