Life, Death and a Sparrow

One evening last April, I deliberately killed a bird.

I held a tiny white-crowned sparrow—no more than a ball of feathers shielding a pounding heart—in my bare hands. Then I broke its neck.

Because I have never intentionally ended an avian life before (we will ignore the chickens and turkeys who have been slaughtered by others on my behalf) I didn’t know how to kill it. My attempt to put this tiny being—convulsing with salmonella—out of its misery was therefore marked by ineptitude. What started as a mercy killing became unintentional torture; I could barely stand myself when it was over. I hid the tiny carcass under a bed of leaves behind the woodshed and ran to the house to wash.

An hour after this event, I went to hear our local doctor tell the community about the new Medical Assistance in Dying Act.

I’ve thought a lot about dying in my adult life. I don’t think it’s because I am particularly morbid. If I am, I’m in fashionable company these days: it’s a hot topic for the aging boomer generation. But death has been a conscious part of my life since my younger brother died of brain cancer almost 40 years ago. In my young adult years, working with folks who had severe disabilities, I was forced to confront my own assumptions about what made someone human, what made life “life.” Then, when I came into ministry twenty-five years ago, I started sitting beside deathbeds. I learned about “no code,” intractable pain, family distress and the unpredictability of death. I learned about fidelity and compassion. Most importantly, I learned how uncomfortable it is to simply be present: to stand as a helpless witness watching another’s final suffering.

Because of this long acquaintance, I have had some opinions about dying. I have believed that the process has the capacity to catapult both the dying and the living into greater depth and love. I have believed that death can be the last and best growth point of life. I have also believed that everyone deserves pain relief—physical and spiritual—at the end of their life.

And I have believed that ending your life at your own hand, or the hand of another, is a shortcut whereby one could miss the mystery and depth of what it is to be human.

So I found this new act challenging. I’ve read the articles in the popular press, for sure: for some people it appears to be a godsend and a beauty. But I’ve seen the other side, too: in one case, for those left living, the decision was a wrenching act that couldn’t be put to rest.

The presentation on medically assisted dying was clear, showing how the process worked and highlighting the safeguards. But during the discussion period, the range of opinions became obvious. It was clear that many folks assumed that the inevitable loss of control at the end of life is simply a horror; not many felt it might become a door into grace. Others viewed the act’s restrictions as unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles to personal control, while I saw them as a few weak gates to protect against undue pressure and family expedience. So I can’t say that I’m happy about this new law. But I also recognize that I have not had to watch a family member die in intractable pain. I have not had to live long years with a parent or spouse whose body is present but whose mind is not.

Frankly, I don’t know what the “right” answer is—if there is one. What I do know is what it was like to kill that tiny bird. I know that I was moved by compassion for its suffering. I also know that, in spite of that compassion, my actions felt wrong.

In my experience, there’s almost always a self-centred nub to my rage against suffering. Other people’s suffering makes me uncomfortable. I want to be in charge, in control: to stop this thing that makes me feel so ill at ease.

I can see now that I had an alternative to wringing the sparrow’s neck. I could have picked up that bird and wrapped it in my heart’s love, held it gently and breathed with it. I know from experience that this kind of attention relieves human suffering. I don’t think I’m wrong to assume that it would ease a tiny bird’s passing.

I could have worked past my own disgust and fear. These are the same things that constrict my being when I’m with a dying human. But my discomfort was compounded by guilt—did that bird get sick from the seed I put out?—and some kind of atavistic fear—did I mention the salmonella?

I wrote that I killed it with my bare hands, but that was a lie. I donned gardening gloves. I picked up that sparrow with dirty, rubberized fingers because, in part, I didn’t have the patience to let it die on its own time. And when it was finally dead after my multiple attempts to snap its neck, I washed and washed like Lady Macbeth.


I was revisiting that April evening recently after seeing a friend who has a very painful form of cancer. During our time together, this friend asked me to be with him at the end of his life; although our spiritual lives differ greatly, we recognize each other’s hearts. Later in the same conversation, he also expressed curiosity about medically assisted dying.

I could surely understand why. But the combination of the two—medically assisted dying, my presence—had me in an internal dither. What would I do if he decided to end his life? Could I still be there with him?

I was talking the situation over with George; well, truthfully, I was moaning about it to him. But George reminded me that my role would not be to assist in the death, but to hold my friend and everyone involved in love. He pointed out that I can choose to hold any situation in love, even—especially—when I am uncomfortable with the situation.

That’s when I realized that refusing to be there would be, for me, the equivalent of donning rubber gardening gloves. It would keep me from getting my hands dirty. I wouldn’t have to encounter the mystery and confusion, the ambiguity, the real human drama involved in that final letting go. I wouldn’t have to take seriously the amount of pain that my friend has lived with, and doesn’t want anymore.

I’d have to let go of control myself.


I don’t have any one-size-fits-all answer about medically assisted death. Physician friends tell me that in their experience, a very high percentage of patients can get satisfactory pain relief at the end of life—with adequate palliative care. But we don’t fund palliative care very well. So I worry about the law as a horrific alternative to adequate medical funding, and I worry about the slippery slope it introduces into our life together. If someone who was dying were to ask me what I thought, I would tell them that, and why; and I would help them advocate for adequate pain control. I will advocate for adequate palliative care as the best way to care for dying people, and I’ll do the spiritual version of palliative care as often as I’m asked. I will also support physicians who will refuse to participate because of ethical and moral commitments.

I really hope we find another way to help people who live with intractable suffering.

But I recognize that I have no right to tell someone to just suck it up. My big picture thoughts—revision or repeal of the law, alternative mechanisms, ethical dilemmas—are worthless to a person ground down by excruciating pain. (And a short pause to consider the etymology of the word “excruciating.”)

So I also hope that I have the capacity to be present with anyone who is dying, no matter how that happens.


© 2018      Mary Therese DesCamp  Reprint with acknowledgement, please

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