What can I do to discourage my terminally ill father from seeking out a doctor to help him end his life? He's dying of cancer, and though his condition isn't dire yet, he's extremely depressed and has been talking about physician-assisted suicide. How can I show him that he has purpose and hope despite his illness?
Your dad's feelings are understandable, but he desperately needs to see the bigger picture. It's easy for a person to slip into despair and start thinking in terms of ending his own life when all he can see ahead is a future of pain, exhaustion and death. By God's grace and with God's help, try to encourage your father to focus on the positive aspects of living.
One way to do this is to put him in touch with his personal context – past accomplishments, present connections, blood-ties with family, bonds of affection with friends. You can start by pulling out some old photo albums. As you reminisce together, remind him of the value that others attach to his presence in their lives and the contributions he can still make to their happiness and welfare. Give him a sense of purpose and you're more likely to give him a reason to live. Let him know that you and the rest of the family love him and that he is important and valuable to you just because he is, and that this is not based on anything he can or cannot do.
Meanwhile, see if you can't widen his horizons even further by bringing God into the equation. Remind him that God is the Author of life, and that it is His place to give life and to take it away (Job 1:21). If your father is a Christian, help him to view his current circumstances as another opportunity to trust the Lord. Pray with him, read Scripture to him, and sit with him quietly when he's too worn out to talk.
When you've laid this groundwork, you can talk about the medical aspects of his situation. As a matter of principle, point out that according to the Hippocratic Oath, physicians are obligated to heal illness, alleviate suffering, and provide comfort and encouragement to their patients, and are specifically prohibited from giving any deadly medicine, "even if asked." Stress the fact that, thanks to the achievements of modern medical science, the battle with cancer and other chronic illnesses need not be marked by endless or unbearable pain. Physicians who specialize in this field report that today's pain- and symptom-management methods can provide substantial relief for the vast majority of patients treated. When applied correctly, modern pain-management techniques are so effective that terminal patients often change their minds about seeking physician assisted suicide. According to Dr. William Wood of the Winship Cancer Center at Emory University in Atlanta, "If we treat their depression and we treat their pain, I've never had a patient who wanted to die."
That leads us to our final point. If your father is thinking seriously about suicide, it's crucial to do everything you can to help him deal with the depression or despair that lie at the root of these self-destructive thoughts. Depression, though common in seriously ill patients, is very treatable. Treatment can lessen and even eliminate suicidal wishes in terminally ill patients. We have a staff of trained, licensed Christian counselors here at Focus on the Family who are available to speak with you or your dad if either of you would be willing to give us a call. They can also provide you with referrals to qualified counselors practicing in your area.
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The Value of a Life Worth Living