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Responsibility of the Living to the Dying and the Dying to the Living

By Mark Davis Pickup

Palliative care should not be about dying; it should be about the last phase of living. With modern pain control methods, medications and techniques, all physical pain can be eliminated, without leaving the patient in a drugged stupor. Dying time can be good time with proper palliative care. The dying process can have the effect of stripping away all things extraneous to life, leaving only that which is essential. It is a time when we can love our own or reconcile with estranged friends or family. It is a time to show love and care toward an abandoned or unloved person we may not even know. In doing so, the living and dying enrich expressed love. That is beauty.

I know this firsthand: Like the boy in the photo above, a quarter of a century ago, my son walked his great-grandfather through his final days. Great-Grandpa was blind, he had Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and finally a stroke. He was dying. He knew it, and we knew it. He could not be cured, so we cared. My son was able to show his great-grandfather he loved him. He expressed his love through little things: he shaved his great-grandfather, washed him, turned him in his bed, and just kept him company. The intimate beauty of those hours and days was beyond description—not only for Great-Grandpa but for my son, and those of us who watched. My son and his great-grandfather were able to say their last quiet goodbyes. Something beautiful happened in that hospital. Did my son grieve his great-grandfather’s death? Yes he did, but is was healthy grieving.

Canada made a dreadful mistake when it legalized assisted suicide under the guise of a law it euphemistically called “medical assistance in dying.” That is not what Canada actually legalized. What we got was medical killing by lethal injection of the disabled, sick, and dying. 

For the sake of assisting a defeated person to kill themselves, we killed so much more. We broke an ancient moral code not to murder. In doing so we killed a precious quality of a civilized society and interdependent community that holds up the intrinsic value and worth of every human being—even if they have ceased to believe in their own innate natural dignity. We killed individual’s consciences. We killed the taboo never help someone commit suicide. We killed physician/patient trust. And it killed individual responsibility to the greater society.

I have had multiple sclerosis for 37 years. At some points, it became so serious that my physician doubted I would live more than a few years. Even when I hung over the abyss of potential quadriplegia, my grief did not absolve my responsibility to others, or posterity. I had a responsibility not only to the sanctity of my own life but every other life. My agony did not diminish that sacred ideal or my obligation to it. I had to look beyond my own predicament, my own pain and fears. Although I was suffering, I still had a duty not to leave this world poorer because of my decisions or actions. 

Society must provide every support to the disabled, sick, and dying. It must never give in to misplaced compassion and kill a person who asks for it. We have a responsibility to moral integrity—developed across centuries—not only for the safety of society but to our own consciences (regardless of how seared or cynical they may become). 

We all have a responsibility to uphold the sacredness of every human life now and those yet to be born. 

This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at