Video: Family embraces true ‘death with dignity’ through palliative care

A Denver family chose palliative care for their wife and mother.

Jane Smith and Brittany Maynard were diagnosed with the same type of terminal brain cancer. Maynard chose to end her life by committing physician-assisted suicide on Nov. 1, 2014. Smith received palliative care and died naturally. Proponents of physician-assisted suicide claimed that Maynard had a “death with dignity”. However, Smith’s family insists her long yet natural death was truly dignified.


“I wouldn’t give those last moments with my mom up for anything in the world,” her daughter, Miranda, said. “I feel like it takes a lot more strength to keep going. When I think of someone who is strong, and in the midst of that hardship, I think of my mom right away. She was so strong during it all.”

Smith’s family said that although it was hard to see her suffer, they know she made the right choice by dying naturally.

“It might have seemed easier not going through it. I definitely think it would have been easier not to deal with all that. But it’s not better,” Miranda said.

Smith’s son, Chris, recalled difficult times with his mother, including watching her suffer seizures during a family trip. However, he also said that his mother was able to see his 21st birthday, and that taking care of her was a gift.

“Me being able to spend that time with her, and her being able to see her family one last time, I feel like those are moments you can’t have back, and those are moments you don’t know are going to happen, but you would wish you did have,” Chris said.

Jane entered palliative care, or care designed to help people in the last stages of natural death.

Kevin Lundry is the CEO of Divine Mercy Supportive Care, a Catholic Palliative Care group endorsed by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila.

“It’s contentious, because both sides are being compassionate in saying, ‘we don’t want people to suffer.’ They don’t want people to suffer; we don’t want people to suffer. It’s just how we get to that point of alleviating the suffering that is where the questions really should lay,” Lundry said.

“Yes, it’s going to be difficult, but the loss from the suicide far outweighs any degree of burden that exists from the journey. The journey of a dying person is actually a beautiful experience…but because we fear death as a culture, we don’t want to go there.”

Lundry also warned against the burden physician-assisted suicide leaves with the family, by causing them to wonder what part they played in their loved one’s death for the rest of their lives.

“That’s more powerful than the burden, if you will, of allowing mom to die in peace with a support team around her,” Lundry said.

Miranda Smith said her mother always put her family before her own comfort.

“In the end, she always thought of me before herself and always tried to comfort me,” Miranda said.

Her father said moments like that were part of what made palliative care so beautiful.

“The little things like that are so valuable and worth it, that even if the person is sick and suffering, there’s so much meaning to it,” Jeff said.

Palliative Care events

Gospel of Life Conference

Oct. 24, 2015 8:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Church of the Risen Christ 3060 S Monaco Pkwy, Denver, CO 80222

40 Days for Life

Sept. 23-Nov. 1


COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”