Dying is terrifying, which is why we need courage

Before 29-year-old Brittany Maynard took her own life Nov. 1, choosing to avoid the pain and suffering caused by an aggressive and large brain tumor, she left the world with a clear message—don’t be afraid of assisted suicide.

In the weeks leading up to her own suicide, Brittany advocated for giving others the choice to “die with dignity,” and she called for a movement to “get people educated about this topic, to have discussions based on facts not fear.”

As the news spread that Brittany had taken a prescribed amount of drugs that caused her death, advocates of euthanasia took to social networks to praise her courage. Canadian Sen. Linda Frum wrote: “RIP brave beautiful soul. Brittany Maynard Has Ended Her Own Life.”

In a certain sense, Frum is correct. From what we learned about Brittany through her videos and media tour, she appeared to be an intelligent, loving and generous person who was uniquely focused on living, and taking in all the beautiful things life has to offer.

What we also saw, however, was a young woman who was deeply fearful of those things we all fear. She feared suffering, losing control, and the humiliation of dying.

After Brittany was diagnosed with an incurable progressive brain tumor called glioblastoma multiforme, she moved from her home in California to Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, so that she could, in her words, “die on my own terms.”

“I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die. So being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying,” she admitted.

It’s true. Dying is terrible, and it’s terrifying. Even great saints have admitted as much.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who suffered an excruciating agony that lasted months, said on her death bed: “I am afraid I have feared death.” She quickly followed this admission with: “It is the first time that I have experienced this, but I abandoned myself immediately to God.”

“Do not be troubled,” she said later to the Carmelite sisters at her side, “if I suffer very much, and if you see in me … no sign of joy at the moment of death.”

Just before she died, Sister Thérèse asked her prioress, “Mother! Isn’t this the agony? Am I not going to die?” Her superior responded that yes, she was dying, but that she could still continue to suffer for many hours. “Well, all right,” Sister Thérèse responded, “I would not want to suffer a shorter length of time.”

Brittany, on the other hand, chose the way of less suffering and less pain. And to her credit, her actions were coherent with the values of our culture, a culture that teaches us to avoid what we fear, all in the name of freedom and control.

In reflecting on her disease, Brittany said the worst thing that could happen to her is that she would wait too long to kill herself, and that she would lose control. Being able to choose her time of death was, to her, the ultimate freedom.

In Brittany, we see a good person. In her last words she encouraged us to “spread good energy” and to “pay it forward.” These aren’t bad messages, however vague they might be.

What we don’t see, however, is the courage and bravery of a soul that has faith.

“What would become of me if God did not give me courage,” Sister Thérèse asked as tuberculosis violently attacked her body, causing her great pain with each and every breath. “If I had no faith, I would have inflicted death on myself without hesitating a moment!”

In her last moments, Sister Thérèse gazed intently on a crucifix and said, “My God, I love you.” She died as she had lived, loving God, and believing in him, with a faith that grew stronger with each moment of pain and suffering, knowing that death was not to have the last word.

Brittany might be a role model for the right-to-die movement, a product of a culture that lives as if God does not exist, and that is characterized by its fear of what it cannot control, but as Christians we are meant to fly to greater heights, and to be role models for others on how to live—and how to die—with courage.

Karna Swanson is the director of communications for the Archdiocese of Denver and the general manager of the Denver Catholic Register.

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.