In the classic Hollies song, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" the group sings:
"The road is long / With many a winding turn / That leads us to who knows where … / But I'm strong / Strong enough to carry him / He ain't heavy, he's my brother /
His welfare is of my concern / No burden is he to bear / We'll get there …
… It's a long, long road / From which there is no return / While we're on the way to there / Why not share …"
Well in 2009, what if the burden is to help care for that brother even as he suffers and dies?
Apparently, yes. As Nancy Gibbs notes in a recent Time magazine essay, "Already in Oregon, one-third of those who chose assisted suicide last year cited the burden on their families and caregivers as a reason."
Gibbs was commenting on the recent joint suicide of renowned conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife. Both elderly, he was healthy while she was terminally ill. Together they went to Switzerland where they paid a clinic to legally help them commit suicide. Their adult children were with them.
They didn't want to suffer, or be a burden to others. Apparently, that's too heavy a load.
There are all kinds of reasons to not artificially prolong life. But I hope I never get into a situation where I want to artificially limit my life so that I'm not a burden to loved ones.
When you think about it, we are all "terminal." Along the way, allowing each other to bear our burdens is one thing that separates us from animals. To let a loved one care for me might be the very thing that leads to greater compassion or less selfishness in him. And I might have to get over my pride in not "needing help." To accept that I really am dependent on others. So my suffering could be a gift to both of us.
Conversely, I want to be open to receiving that gift from another.
I'm fiercely independent and self-reliant by nature. But already in the five years I've been single, I've become better at laying down my pride and asking for help. And, I've learned to share much more in the burdens of others. Both sides of that equation have profoundly enriched me.
No I'm not suggesting we wallow in pity, seek joy in victimhood status, or suffer for the sake of it. I'm all for ease in life.
And I am not minimizing the very real sacrifices and burden that caregivers often experience.
But I am convinced there is a growing mindset in our culture that genuine suffering has no value. That it must be avoided, even at the cost of life itself.
Well, I think that's selfish. So, memo to kids and family: I'm not checking out early just to avoid being a burden to you. And I sure don't want you doing that for me.