Death seems so pertinent to life yet so elusive, and it can be hard to wrap your mind around either. Occasionally a known figure dies, the issue rises, the media swarms, and we clamor about and around the issue—proving, of course, we are emotionally mature and intellectually honest enough to discuss the topic—before we bury it deep again, hurriedly, with an excavator.
Two young women have died in the last six months that have pushed the issue front and center—and it’s time to let it linger.
Two Dying Women, Two Different Perspectives
While the passing of older generations is met with bittersweet sorrow, it’s often accompanied by a feeling of relief that a person is no longer suffering. That is not the case when someone deemed “young” dies. It was part of the reason Brittany Maynard’s story became a hot topic. It wasn’t just that she wanted to end her own life due to brain cancer, but that she was only 29 years old and bravely choosing to end her life while she was able, rather than letting cancer take the best of her.
Yet 38 year-old Kara Tippetts, a daughter, wife, and mom to four young children, made a very different choice. She died Sunday after a lengthy battle with breast cancer. Her public memorial service will be tomorrow. The two women have become viral poster children for opposite causes: Dying with dignity and dignity while dying. Tippetts blogged about her journey with cancer and authored a book about it. On her blog you’ll find a progression of photos marking her declining health—first smiling with beautiful blonde hair, then bald—with her friends, husband, and children. A friend raised $15,000 to produce a moving documentary to tell her story.
Tippetts wrote an open letter to Maynard on her friend, Ann Voskamp’s, blog, pleading with her to make a different choice. “Dear heart, we simply disagree. Suffering is not the absence of goodness, it is not the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known. In your choosing your own death, you are robbing those that love you with the such tenderness, the opportunity of meeting you in your last moments and extending you love in your last breaths.”
Loving Unto Death
Tippetts’ words are beautiful, but they sound almost baffling. How can a mom of four write those words as cancer creeps into her bones, chemotherapy continually fails, and weeks before hospice care enters her home to walk toward a graceful and comfortable death? I have been reading her blog since the fall of last year, and with each post, as her pain increased, as hospice care moved in, I wanted to shake my fist and stomp my feet for her, at what seemed to be an unfair unfolding of events.
As a mother of four, watching her live well while dying gracefully in a household with little ones watching seems almost nauseating in its excruciating, stark reality. Yet her calm bravery and quiet grace, her sure faith and steady passion were (and remain), because of her sickening disease, an inspiration.
Tippetts wrote this, following a straightforward discussion with her nurse about the stages of dying: “I cried and knew I have turned yet another corner and around that corner I will be met with new grace, new abiding, new joy, and new surrender. I will have a more tender love to share, a more sincere story to tell, a more immediate desire for those I love to know the true love of my heart.”
Instead of hating cancer and being angry at God, instead of claiming she knew better about how and when she should die, she chose to cling to her faith and rest in a sovereign plan beyond her own understanding. Instead of viewing death as something that would cut her off from loved ones too soon, she looked at it as a chance to show more unabated love to those who would be cut off from her this side of heaven. Her blog was called “Mundane Faithfulness.” Even a person who does not identify with any kind of faith can identify with part of that title. Sure, there are ups and downs, joys and sorrows, but a lot of life is fairly mundane. The title comes from a question Martin Luther asked: “What will you do in the mundane days of faithfulness?
Kara Tippetts answered that question with her life. Her example provides a perspective on death worth investigating, and a perspective on life worth imitating.
“My little body has grown tired of battle, and treatment is no longer helping. But what I see, what I know, what I have is Jesus. He has still given me breath, and with it I pray I would live well and fade well. By degrees doing both, living and dying, as I have moments left to live. I get to draw my people close, kiss them and tenderly speak love over their lives. I get to pray into eternity my hopes and fears for the moments of my loves. I get to laugh and cry and wonder over Heaven.”