Dying for Control

by Kimn Swenson Gollnick

“Can you come with me?” my mother’s tearful voice asked over the phone. “Grandpa’s dying.”
The hospital had sent her father home with medication to make him as comfortable as possible. My aunt and cousin had already moved in with him to provide around-the-clock care. My mother felt she should be there as well, but we had been estranged from her family for more than two decades. Understanding her desire for moral support, I told her I’d come.

Since Dr. Jack Kevorkian began publicly helping patients end their lives, I had struggled with the questions about “death with dignity.” I didn’t want anyone to suffer excruciating pain. Now that my grandfather was near death, I wondered about the quality of life argument. Did it have merit? Despite the intellectual wrangling, I instinctively felt there was something wrong with facilitating another person’s demise. I didn’t know at the time that I was embarking on a week that would change my view of euthanasia.

The visits

I went with my mother to her father’s home. Our visit turned out to be surprisingly warm and loving. It was also the first time I had ever seen my grandfather sober.

“Kimmie!” my grandfather exclaimed when we arrived. Surprised, I opened my mouth, skimming through my mind for a friendly greeting –the sort of pleasantry you say to someone you haven’t seen in years. But Grandpa continued to talk, gesturing excitedly to the far wall. A small piece of framed artwork hung over the television.

“See that?” he asked, his voice swelling with emotion. “I tell all my buddies that my granddaughter drew that for me!”

A dozen thoughts flashed through my mind. I’d made something for him? Something of which he was excited and proud? What could make such an impression on him? I glanced at the picture, but didn’t recognize it. How could I gently inform him that he was mistaken?

To buy myself time, I walked over to the pastel chalk drawing and looked. Stunned, I saw my signature, clear and bold, marking this tropical goldfish as my artwork. A memory flooded back of a Christmas long past when I’d drawn this for him, a man I didn’t know very well except as my mother’s father.

Shame enveloped me. I’d assumed for years that my grandfather didn’t care much about his grandchildren, much less know my name.

Staring at the drawing I’d given him so long ago, I remembered the hope I’d had of touching his heart while considering he may not care about a silly fish picture. Tears filled my eyes. Now, after all these years, I had been given the precious gift of seeing how that teenaged hope had come true. I’d touched him. And now, I had been touched.

I went back the next day, and more days that week, driving six hours round trip each time, accompanied by my two young children. I got to know my cousin again, and her little girl played with my boys. My sons and their great-grandfather met for the first time.

I talked with my grandfather about his work for Boeing building prototypes of the 727, 737, 747, and 757 airplanes. He remembered details of my wedding in 1985. I found out he fought in World War II. While stationed in France, he taught himself three foreign languages, despite only having an eighth grade education. I wondered what Grandpa could have accomplished if he hadn’t become an alcoholic and gambler.

The question

Early in the week Grandpa moaned bitterly, “God, take me. Why is it taking so long?”

My cousin pulled me aside. In a low, trembling voice she confided he had asked her to help him die.

Although not in pain, Grandpa was extremely uncomfortable and required oxygen. His kidneys were failing, causing his body to swell. He was on a tiring schedule of different medications, every three hours around the clock. He could not get out of bed. We could see he resented the loss of independence and privacy in caring for his own needs. I felt selfish for wanting him to live like that.

But then I realized, wasn’t he also being selfish for wanting to die on demand? Wasn’t it selfish to demand death on his terms, in his own way, without regard to how it could hurt us and cheat us of time with him?

The facts

I read What You Should Know About Suicide (Word, Inc., 1982). In it Dr. Bill Blackburn describes nine motivations for suicide, which include “To avoid becoming a ‘burden'” (p. 27) and “To avoid the effects of a dread disease” (p. 28). In regard to the latter motivation, he adds that for the terminally ill person, suicide is “. . . an attempt to control the time that the death will occur” (emphasis added).

Along with other material I read, this convinced me that my grandfather was dying for control. I wondered, Does God the Creator have a divinely appointed time for us to depart this life?

The possibilities

But what could be the divine purpose for the deathbed, that period before death? I saw several possibilities.

In my case, it pulled a fractured family together. Members set aside disagreements for a time, making sacrifices for a man who had lived alone many years. In doing so, we were unavoidably changed.

Grandpa, too, benefited. By the end of the week, some of the family began planning a barbecue so those who hadn’t been able to visit could come by. We chatted happily near Grandpa’s bed, asking his opinion on food and other details while trying to ignore the haunting question: Would Grandpa die before then?

In a quiet moment, my grandfather told my cousin and me, without his characteristic harshness, “I only wish I could stay around long enough to see this family reunion complete.” We knew he meant more than just the barbecue. He meant he wanted to spend holidays with us, to see the family together again. In other words, he had changed his mind about wanting to “check out.”

The revelation

The Bible says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die . . .” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 2, NIV). Even Job, a man who suffered greatly, acknowledged God’s sovereignty in matters of life and death. He told God, “Man’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of months and have set limits he cannot exceed” (Job 14:5, NIV).

My grandfather died on Father’s Day, quietly at his home, in divine timing. I now fiercely treasure that time I had with him before he died. His interlude before death touched family, carving change in our hearts, as well as in his.

If euthanasia had been legal in our state, I’m convinced my grandfather would have made arrangements with his doctor and died alone, just as he lived the previous decade alone.

Instead, his deathbed allowed him time to emotionally and physically follow the natural stages of dying. At first he resisted them, but eventually he gained a degree of peace within himself and left memories for the rest of the family. I also believe God provided this time for my grandfather, who flagrantly defied God all his life, to face his spiritual condition — a last chance to accept or reject Christ for eternity.

Had my grandfather been legally offered the chance to die when he first thought he wanted, none of these things could have happened. Now I know that euthanasia is wrong. It robs God of His sovereignty and cheats us all out of unforeseen good.

Author’s grandparents

Natural process