Life is a Gift from God

Sue Seconi
Issue 23, November 2007

Life is a gift from God! But often our experiences in life might not always make us believe or feel that life is in fact a gift from God.

"Isn't it great to be alive" does not only sum up those times when we eat freshly baked bread, taste a glass of one's favourite red wine, slip into a warm bubble bath surrounded by tea-light candles, or marvel at infinity as one gazes into a star-studded night sky.

On the contrary, life can become frightening, brutal and "Mondayitis" can strike any day of the week. Life might not be viewed as so romantic but merely an ongoing daily struggle.

On the eve of Pentecost Sunday in 2005 Mum finally died. She had Alzheimer's disease.

For 10 long years this degenerative neurological brain disease twisted and buckled her mind and body taking her from a self-sufficient, fiercely independent and dignified woman, into a needy frail shell. Month by month, and bit by bit, this vicious silent killer robbed her of her faculties and stole her sense of personality. As she reached new points of deterioration, she needed medical reclassification which saw her originally shift from the family home of 45 years, to Stage 1 rest home care, then secure care and finally requiring full nursing hospital care. Each shift was a major emotional upheaval. At life's end she resembled a tiny baby, completely reliant on others for absolutely everything. She could not even make a decision or know what she needed or wanted.

As daughter-companion I powerlessly and helplessly watched for a decade.

As I now reflect back over those gruelling years I managed fairly well most of the time. Other times, however, my pretending caught me out as the enormity of my reality overwhelmed me. Thinking especially of those times I could not see an end in sight, and waiting for death had become senseless and useless. I figured that death would be the healer for both of us, yet I could not find death. In the dark of my shame I would become disappointed when she got so near to passing away only to pull through.

I treasured people who understood my continual grieving and who just sat and listened without trying to fix the problem or minimize my anguish. Their gift of compassion was pure concentrate.

I am grateful to those wise figures and mentors who helped me integrate the pain enabling me to reach a more peaceful contented "whole-self". To embrace that "disturbance" that displaces us deep within ourselves was made easier. They assured me, and gave me hope that this certain "aching loneliness" did not last forever. My consciousness of God in the human reality deepened. God's presence is not selective I concluded. God is in the good, the bad and in the shadow.

I became very weary of popular one-line sayings. They had the potential to keep me trapped and pinned down as a martyr or victim to Mum's Alzheimer's. Comments like – "you'll get on top of it"; "at least your Mum isn't suffering"; "time will heal"; "give it to the Lord"; "put your pain at the foot of the cross", or "God only gives you what you can carry". I learnt to "manage" my grief by learning to distinguish between the healthy and unhelpful. The Christian Mystery of Redemption to me is about triumph and victory, not suffocation. My prayer would always be about sustaining us all to journey's natural conclusion, drawing on that collective sense of prayer so innate in the Catholic faith tradition.

Without these people I would have probably done what many people do in the face of tragedy - avoid the brokenness at all costs by denying its existence or by suddenly becoming over-busy.

One-liners are also common when people argue over euthanasia. Particularly popular is '"f they were an animal or vegetable they would be put down". I responded by saying that Alzheimer's did not turn Mum into a "collie" or a "poodle", nor a "cauliflower" or a "lettuce" to be cut off at the stem. Underneath was still Mum whom we loved. As I looked at her even on my struggle days, I still saw her as a power with rights to be honoured and with a body to be esteemed.

Mum's death was beautiful.

It was a time of profound joy for me. During her final 36 hours on earth her eyes began to fix on the new heaven, the new earth, and the choirs of angels. I saw in her face an amazing serenity that I had never ever seen before as more and more of the fullness of her new home was being revealed to her. And in doing so her body bowed in and released her spirit. She died so naturally - with the same ease as the sun breaks with its light for the new day.

Being there was her gift to me.

From my experience "down here on the ground" while the debate about Peter Brown's 2003 Private Members Bill making voluntary euthanasia legal raged "over top", I came to the conclusion that this debate was more about the right not to suffer. While the hospice movement went into bat as a response to the Bill, making more impression than Gospel values and beliefs, what was noticeable was the silence coming from those neurological organizations as the country talked about the seriously sick and dying among us.

Further, the central issue I believe was about giving the power of choice to the healthy person and not the terminally ill. Physical pain can be relieved but not as easily as the anxiety or the distress of those who do the long haul supporting those suffering from neurological disorders, damage or illnesses. Fundamental to the push for voluntary euthanasia is not the right to die for the dying, but rather, giving those who watch the power to avoid waiting for natural death. At stake is the issue of the meaning of human suffering.


Sue Seconi lives in Wanganui with her husband Patrick and they have three adult sons.