Reverend Madison Shockley serves as a United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor in Carlsbad, California. A compelling spokesman for end-of-life choice, Rev. Shockley recalls several experiences that reconciled his theological beliefs with his views on dying.
The issue for me turned in ministry when I was visiting one of our parishioners, a retired minister who was dying. And he was asking for death – not in the sense of assistance, but he was welcoming death. Watching him and hearing him just really put a different perspective on it for me. Though I’ve been in ministry for over 30 years, I can still count on one hand the times I’ve been in the room at the moment of death. But those rare moments are a large part of what changed me, to see how people do suffer.
A respiratory disease [death] was one [that changed me]: to watch a person basically suffocate, and also watch the nurse with a wink and a nod increase the morphine to give not pain relief but comfort. One could consider that she basically gave him an overdose. But the gasping for air was so painful for him and for his family to watch, I could understand it.
Since then, each time I have been in what I really regard as a sacred situation, to be present when someone dies, I’m reminded everyone dies differently. Our deaths are as different as our lives. We should have the same freedom to live our lives as to live our deaths.
I became involved with Compassion & Choices while giving testimony at the state capitol in 2006, when California was considering a death-with-dignity bill. I’ve continued my involvement by writing to legislators. Hopefully, with the new governor, we stand a better chance now.
My father died two years ago, and I was so glad to have gained perspective through working with Compassion & Choices and working with hospice. It really helped me. He didn’t need assistance; he died a beautiful and relatively painless death.
He had prostate cancer, which can often be very painful. One day my siblings and I were on the phone with his oncologist, who said, “I have some news for you all. Your father’s cancer has spread to his liver. And that’s good news.” Then he went on to say, “The reason it’s good news is that dying from liver cancer is relatively fast and painless as opposed to dying of prostate cancer, which is long and torturous.” So to watch my father die from liver cancer….just made it so clear that longer life isn’t always a good thing. Every day that he lives is of course a blessing, to have his presence. But if the longer he lives is going to be more pain he endures, after a life of 88 years why would you wish somebody to have an extra week to suffer? That’s a really selfish thing.
When we watched my father die, we were all there with him. It was a beautiful thing. Working with Compassion & Choices and gaining this perspective helped me receive that blessing in its fullness on that day.
The moment of death is a sacred moment, and it’s often painful emotionally, physically and spiritually. But when it can be right, it’s a real blessing to everyone. You can be faithful and also welcome death. Once you’ve crossed that kind of spiritual and psychological and emotional threshold, you can begin to understand how in certain circumstances a person requesting assistance in dying is also faithful.