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Guest commentary by William E. May, Ph.D.

Frequently, elderly people like me (I will soon be 82 years old), some suffering from an assortment of health problems, are heard to say that they don’t want to be a burden on their families, especially their spouses and children. And there is surely some truth in this. But rightly understood—and I hope to make it so here—I want to be a burden to my loved ones.

Gilbert Meilaender’s thoughtful reflections and their relevance to care of dying

I began thinking seriously about this a short time ago when I received a copy of the 20th anniversary issue of the journal First Things (March 2010), in which selections from its first 20 years were reprinted.

Among these was Gilbert Meilaender’s brief piece in the October 1991 issue called “I Want to Burden My Loved Ones.” In his thoughtful and thought-provoking article, Meilaender points out that in this life we do not come together as autonomous individuals freely contracting with each other.

Rather we find ourselves living with other persons, beginning with our families, and are asked to share the burdens of life while caring for each other. He emphasizes that “morality consists in large part in learning to deal with the unexpected and unplanned interruptions in our life.”

In short, we can ask ourselves, “How do I bear the contradictions of each day?” –traffic jams when we are in a hurry to get to work; slipping on the ice and breaking some bones; losing our job because of downsizing. Do we accept these or rebel against them and against God, who loves us yet allows these to remind us that we are not in control of our lives; He is.

Toward the end of his essay, Meilaender said: “Perhaps it is a good thing, lest we be tempted to injustice, that the dying burden the living.”

Thinking about this, Meilaender suggested that it is far better to name a proxy with the power of attorney to make decisions regarding our medical treatments, should we become incompetent and incapable of making them for ourselves when gravely ill.

He said that at the time he was writing he would name his wife as his proxy, for he was confident that she would always ask, “What can we do to benefit the life he still has?” realizing that answering this question will put a burden on her. But because she loves him, she will welcome this burden. Meilaender is surely on target. I will later return to this issue.

Personal reflections

Reading Meilaender’s essay led me to think about the final days of my own father and mother. God had given me wonderful, loving parents, who surely bore with love and patience the “burdens” I placed on them as their child in growing up and even later when faced with serious economic problems when I was out of work for eight months. They lived in my native St. Louis and I in Washington, D.C. when they were suffering the ailments of old age and dying.

I could not care for them, nor could my younger sister who lived in Kansas City, Missouri, where she taught French. But my older sister, who had been so good to me all my life and had a large family of seven children and many grandchildren, lived still in our native St. Louis, and she was indeed burdened to care, first, for my father who at age 82 and still quite active slipped on some ice in the winter, hitting his head and after that lying in a semi-conscious state for almost a year before dying.

My mother did what she could and fortunately my father’s retirement program paid for a nurse to come daily to help move him in bed; but my sister had to do many, many things for both my father and mother.

After my father died, my mother lived for another 10 years and needed a lot of help, particularly after she contracted cancer of the pancreas, but my sister gladly gave her all, to do what she could to meet her needs despite her own busy life. And she did so cheerfully, gladly; it was a burden she wanted to bear because it gave her the opportunity to give her mother (and earlier my father) love in return for the love they had given her. I am sorry that I could not share this burden.

God, I know, has blessed me with a loving wife. Over the past year in particular, when I had serious health problems, she bore cheerfully the burden of helping me dress, pushing me for good distances in a wheel chair …, etc. God has also blessed me with fantastic, loving children, four boys, three girls, who even now, in particular the three who live closest to me and my wife, bear a lot of burdens in caring for us and helping us get to stores, banks, etc. because I can no longer drive and my wife has not driven for years. But they do so gladly, and the children who live at a distance sacrifice to make special trips to visit us and help us as much as they can.

My wife is my appointed proxy and I am hers; and, should we both be incompetent our oldest son Michael is. We know that we love each other and that Michael loves us deeply. In answering the question, “What can we do to benefit the life I, or my wife, or both of us, have left to live?” it will be our burden (mine, my wife’s, or Michael’s) to make decisions that in our judgment will add life to the days of the loved one for whom we care, however many remain for him or her. And we know that whoever carries this burden will choose to do what he or she knows is morally good… on the way life-preserving measures are to be used.

The virtue of solidarity
A great virtue is that of solidarity. In carrying the burden of persons who are in need of care, especially one’s loved ones and those most vulnerable in our society, we are given the chance to practice this virtue… Moreover, although our burdens may frequently be very hard to carry we need to remember that our Lord told us that to follow him we could do so only by taking up our cross daily, and we should likewise remember that He is our Simon of Cyrene, ready to help us bear our cross lovingly.

Final reflections
I do not mean to say that caring for the elderly and others is not a burden.
It can be, sometimes significantly so.
I am saying that bearing this burden is so central to being human that if we run from the burden, we not only disrespect the elderly and vulnerable, we dehumanize ourselves.

Our community has been backing away in disgust from persons who are dependent since the selfish sixties. Families with lots of children are no longer considered examples of generosity, but rather of irresponsibility. Children with severe disabilities are not special angels sent to us by God, but drains on the economy; better that they not be born. And the elderly are burdens.

But if we succeed in pushing away everyone who is dependent, then we’re left with ourselves, our egocentric, sin-rationalizing, defensive, irritable and vain selves.

If we never learn to give till it hurts, till the painful reality that we’re not the center of the universe sinks in, we will fail at marriage, at parenthood, at citizenship, even at simple neighborliness. Our community will become a marketplace of the physically strong, but morally weak.

The great ethicist Stanley Hauer wrote an essay a few years ago arguing that we need the elderly and disabled more than they need us. Without them to love, to sacrifice for, to give to till it hurts, we will become a community of devils.

[ALL Pro-Life Today, 23 April 2010, reprinted with permission from the Culture of Life Foundation. CLF is a social policy research institute that exists to reveal and present the truths about the human person at all stages of life and in all conditions.
Dr. William E. May was senior research fellow of CLF and emeritus Michael J. McGivney professor of moral theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. He taught at the John Paul II Institute from 1991 through 2008, after teaching for 20 years at the CUA. He is the author of more than a dozen books and is married to Patricia.]