Most of the time we don’t wonder or think about how we are going to die; or maybe that is just me because I am young. In states like Oregon, Washington and Montana this preparation is possible. Legally under the “Death with Dignity Act” persons who have been given a prognosis of six or fewer months to live can be prescribed a medication, which induces a coma like state and within hours death (please look at www.deathwithdignity.org). Some perceive this as an act against God, others a gracious act of mercy. The film “How to Die in Oregon” received the U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Peter D. Richardson offered a dignified and personal look at the affect “Death with Dignity” offers people from Oregon and Washington.
I cannot write this blog without hoping to affect and challenge some of the presuppositions and ideas people have about death and medicine. Working as a hospital chaplain some of the primary theological questions that come to play in conversations with patients and their families in critical situations are: are we playing God by perpetuating life through medication and medical procedures, and/or are we playing God by removing medical care? These questions are significant and real, but whatever state a person is in when he/she is diagnosed with terminal illness there is sadness, fear, disappointment and often loss of hope.
What I appreciate most about the Documentary “How to Die in Oregon” is the director's ability to take real-life people who are dying and create a film that tells their stories. None of the people depicted in this film are using this assisted death as a means of escape. The producer and his crew closely follow these stories of life and loss, their work allows us to see the love and hope that is found in real time with real people.
As a pastor we are called into many different situations of life and loss; that space between joy and sadness, love and hate, hope and despair. This film continues the conversation connecting us with the lives of real people and their decision to die with dignity and care for their families. The documentary does not portray death as anything easy because death is not just about one person but about every person affected by the loss of a loved one. We see the affect this has on wives, husbands and children as survivors of their loved ones.
We, as ambassadors of God, have the privilege to extend the peace of Christ, to bring light and compassion into these moments of despair. God promises to bring comfort through times of suffering and loss. Every person who was documented in this film experienced both suffering and loss, and this is what I appreciated most about the film’s perspective. The Oregon Death with Dignity Act does not free a person from suffering, sadness or loss. Every day we can find opportunities to stand beside these people and remind them that God is there.