• Rev. Dr. Craig Stephans

Jesus and Sanctify of Life at the End of Life

Updated: Feb 11

Sanctity of Life and the pro-life movement rightly highlight the daily urgency of the abortion crisis in America and the world. Each day in the USA thousands of babies are murdered by an industry that advocates and markets abortion and disburses loads of propaganda. The urgency of stopping abortion has its Scriptural basis for the sanctity of life in the womb. Pro-life activists recognize the imperative to fight for the life of babies in the womb.

The sanctity of life in the womb has been my primary focus as a Chaplain to pregnancy resource centers and an advocate as an Anglican priest and pastor. I have attended workshops and presentations that addressed the other end of the life spectrum: those who are dying; however, I had not approached end of life issues with the same urgency as beginning of life issues.

The sanctity of life at the end of life, even during times of terminal suffering became front and center for me during the season of my own dad’s end of life battle with metastasized lung cancer. After suffering from increasing pain, loss of appetite and decreasing strength, my dad was diagnosed with stage 4 inoperable lung cancer in September 2019. He was 76 at the time, a decade older from when he had a heart transplant. During the decade following the heart transplant, he was regularly suffering from a high level of pain due to back pain primarily. His back pain prevented him from doing some of the exercises he had previously enjoyed, and his diet wasn’t the most nutritious. He never regained being in “good” shape following the transplant.

As some pregnancies are described as “crisis pregnancies,” then certainly some end of life diagnoses are also times of crisis – unwanted, inconvenient, painful, seemingly hopeless, full of anxiety and no easy solution. My dad’s diagnosis and proceeding suffering and care needs were unwanted by everyone and inconvenient for everyone. He couldn’t do anything about his sickness and inconvenience at this time. He was a victim of his disease and the nature of dying.

My sister and I experienced similar reactions that bounced back and forth from concern for our dad to our own interests expressed in the exclamatory question, “What do we do now?” My dad lived alone in Odessa, TX. I lived with my family in North Carolina. My sister lived with her husband and dogs in Galveston, TX, a nine hour drive from Odessa. My dad was unable to care for himself or be left alone. This was a crisis, an unwanted end of life situation.

My interest, and my sister’s, could have been focused on the interruption and inconvenience in terms of career, family, finances, stress, personal life, etc. All of these would be disrupted by the end of life issue.

The oncologist told my sister at the time of diagnoses that my dad had no more than 6 weeks to live. He lived over 7 weeks. We hired around-the-clock unskilled caregivers and availed ourselves of hospice care right away. Even with that care, Chris spent 6 of those 7 weeks with my dad. I spent 4 of them there. We wanted to be with him during his final days, and we kept thinking they were imminent. We learned that the caregivers needed supervision and on-site help by a family member much of the time. There were only a few days when neither of us was at the house.

My dad had the money available to pay the high cost of on-site caregiving that wasn’t cheap. Three caregivers shared the duties. We quickly replaced two of the caregivers who kept sleeping on the job until we settled on three that were satisfactory; we came to learn in the final days that the night caregiver was also sleeping and failing to give meds.

During my dad’s final days, I learned some important truths about sanctity of life at the end of life. Mainly, God is working during the times of suffering when you wonder things like “Why is God allowing this?” Or, “Shouldn’t his morphine be increased, so he just sleeps?” And, “Why doesn't God go ahead and take him?” And eventually, “How…Why is he still alive?” My dad lived for 13 days without food and with little liquid at the end. He was a fighter, that’s for sure, because it was not as if he had eaten much at all prior to that. God is working during the asking of these questions. And in God’s mind, they all have an answer that is good, loving and just.

I learned some significant insights about myself. Mainly, I am quite selfish and unlike Christ. Many of my thoughts and concerns were regarding my own interests. I wondered many times how long I would need to be there before and after my dad’s death. I wondered how hard it was going to be to deal with his stuff after he died. I thought about how Chris and I will manage all of it after he dies. Sadly, I thought many times that it would be good if he would go ahead and pass away as he slept or lay in bed. He was suffering after all, and he couldn’t do much, and he was an inconvenience, and surely he doesn’t want to remain like this and get worse.

So what was sacred about his end of life? What if we had a terminal option for end of life? Could it be justified to end life of our own initiative rather than allow prolonged suffering?

During his end of life, Jesus was present with him. I believe that the Lord continued to reveal himself to my dad through his suffering in his spirit, through prayers, through Scripture being read to him and through those who cared for him and in the visits of his friends. I don’t know what depth or breadth of God’s work occurred during his final weeks, but I know there was a significant revelation of Jesus to him, as he let go of this world and accepted and embraced the next.

The visits of people to my dad during his final weeks brought a blessing to him and also seemed to bring joy in sadness to those who visited. End of life suffering confronts people in their day-to-day lives. If we choose to enter into the suffering of others, we find there is hope that seems determined to outlast the body. We experience something greater than death in the bond of friendship.

A friend that my dad had worked with years before came to see him his final week, and he was delighted

Caregiving for others is a most difficult act that humans can perform. It may be one of the most Christlike also. Jesus cares of us all and is with us through our sufferings. The caregiver joins Jesus in his ministry. Similarly, the caregiver ministers to Christ who identifies with those in the midst of suffering and death. Whatever we do to the least of these, we do it unto him. End of life suffering, invites us to enter the privileged act of caring for those who are Christ’s image. It is sacrificial and seemingly unrewarding – that is until it is rewarded.

My sister and I, the hospice nurse and others didn’t understand what kept my dad going in his suffering and no nourishment during his final weeks. We encouraged him to let go. I prayed for God to receive him peacefully without any more suffering. We wondered if his medication needed increase.

But as I’ve reflected on all of it, I think I know the answer. He loved seeing people, even when he was confined to bed and in and out of wakefulness. He may not have been the best at relationships, and I know at times he felt miserably, but the suffering was worth it for him to see the next person, to be with someone to enjoy their company and visit again. No matter how far he was in decline in the last days, when someone came he found a way to acknowledge them -- to say thanks or greet them. Every one of his friends mattered to him. He just kept finding a way to see people. I actually think he kept fighting because he started anticipating people coming to see him -- his friends, his loving caregivers. He didn’t want to miss them. And he definitely didn’t want to say “goodbye” to his best friend Goldendoodle Toby (pictured below shortly before my dad passed).

On the Tuesday before he died on Thursday I went to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church to arrange for his ashes to be interred, and I went into their beautiful, quiet and dim sanctuary and sat down to pray and listen. I asked God why this kept going on – my dad’s suffering, and I pictured the decline and state of my dad’s humiliation. My answer came when I looked up at the large crucifix of Jesus on the cross. Except for the artist’s modesty of a loincloth, Jesus was naked and humiliated. He couldn’t move. He was like my dad near death, suffering what by all viewpoints seemed like a horrible defeat of faith, hope and life. He was a strong man become weak. The answer in Jesus Christ on the cross was that he, the Son of God, has entered into our most horrible suffering. He is present in it. He impressed upon me that he was present with my dad. He assured me that as Jesus endured and overcame, by that same power of life, so would my dad enter a most extraordinary glory.

Like my dad was hanging on I think to see the next person, Jesus was literally hanging to the cross that he might see you and me and the next person for eternity, because he truly loves each of us enough to enter into such suffering for us. He continues in suffering for us, until all suffering is ended.

The turn came for my dad when instead of talking about who was coming to visit we began to talk about him going to visit people in heaven, his beloved brothers Bob and Pete, especially. I began to read to him Scriptures of the promised victory in heaven. But still before he went to see those in heaven, he waited to see the next visitor. In this case, it was his wonderful hospice nurse Anna. When she came on the last day, my dad expressed thanks to her as best he could and then breathed his last. He had the last word. It was a word of thanks, of no regrets. It was a word that encourages you to believe in hope over despair, faith over fear and life over death. It is a word that encourages you to believe in the sanctity of life everyday for every person from conception to the death whose time is in God’s hands.

I know that the suffering at the end of life will make the glory of heaven that much sweeter. And while we may never know it and would never ask for it, God uses the end of life days for his good purposes that are loving, good and just.



©2019 by PRC Chaplain.