Recent years have found considerable attention being given to the whole mortal process of death and dying. There are courses and seminars, medical and sociological studies, books written about the psychology of dying, about the emotional cost to individuals and families, the financial cost, and the various systems and mechanisms to help people cope. Complex questions have found a broad public forum. Yet the ethical problems are tough, and the answers offered haven't gathered much consensus or proved very satisfactory to many thinkers. Long-term institutional care for the elderly, questions about when life may be determined no longer worth preserving, physician-assisted suicides—these are just a few of the troubling issues society is facing.
One recent book, a national bestseller in the United States, reflects much of medical science's current thinking on how long-term or terminal illnesses affect the way people confront their final years. Among the examples cited is a clinical experience involving an elderly patient who had suffered with a severe, recurring illness. At one point in her struggle, the patient tells her doctor, "Death keeps taking little bits of me." Sherwin B. Nuland, How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 66 .
Don't we read in this woman's words a heart crying out for something that could change the course of what seemed so terribly inevitable? Crying out for something, at least, that she could hold on to? Something that would speak to the hopelessness, the degradation? Something that would say "Your existence has meaning and value. You can live. You can feel glad to be alive"?