As reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Daniel Browne Gute and Katherine Tobin Gute killed themselves on July 18. Dan was a retired urologist, former president of Saukville, and enjoyed sailing. He faced no major medical problems and was a healthy 79 year-old. His wife Katherine was an avid tennis player and professional golfer who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Not wanting to suffer through the difficulty of an illness, they chose to end their lives together.
The devoted couple was found dead in their garage in River Hills. Their obituary in the Milwaukee Journal said, “they chose to end their lives with dignity.” I am not sure that there is much dignity in dying surrounded by helium tanks, tubes, and plastic garbage bags (as was reported by the newspaper). Suicide is not a dignified act but a selfish one. They would likely have gone on to live for many years. They deprived their friends, community, and their children and grandchildren from their lively presence. Their death also has the harmful consequence of teaching that there is no value in suffering and that when life throws you a curveball, an acceptable option is to give up and quit.
The obituary went on to read, “Dan and Kitty would have hoped that their loving act could open up a dialogue on the right of all, particularly the elderly and those who are afflicted with terminal illnesses, to decide for themselves when to end their lives.” How sad that an act as terrible as suicide is seen as a loving thing to do and something to be encouraged.
One morning when I was a boy the family had gathered at the kitchen table when the sound of a shotgun was heard. We lived within the city limits and so it was rare to hear the noise of a gun. Mr. Dean, our neighbor, ran from across the street and yelled, “Mr. Heinrich just shot himself.” As a boy I liked to see the bees that Mr. Heinrich kept. I bought a live-trap from him and used it to catch rabbits, birds, and opossums. He paid neighborhood kids twenty-five cents to rake his grass but always paid me more. He let me have some of the junk in his garage that he saw my brother and me eyeing. He was a soft-spoken man, but quiet and nice. My father later told me that Mr. Heinrich had sat in his lawn chair that Sunday morning, leaned the shotgun to his chest, and reached down and pulled the trigger. He told me that there was a huge hole in Mr. Heinrich’s chest as he lay slumped over and dead. In all my life I never thought that what Mr. Heinrich did was a loving and dignified act, but a sad act by a wonderful man who missed his wife and needed help. It was a difficult thing for our community, church, and his family to deal with. I still think about Mr. Heinrich, but all these years later I still feel sad. Mr. Heinrich deprived me and others of the blessing that he was in our lives.
There have been times in our lives when we have wanted to die. At times we have all thought that death was the answer. We have gone through such great difficulty that we have prayed for death or wanted it to come. It is not always wrong to pray for death. St. Paul wanted to die and be with Christ. “To live is Christ, to die is gain,” he once said. We sometimes pray that the Lord would take us or a loved one home, and yet we do so always knowing that the Lord knows best and his timetable is best. He is the author of life and death and it is never right to take such matters into our own hands. But the truth of the matter is that those who are suicidal really don’t want to kill themselves but wrongly think at that moment that it is the only way out of the pain and hurt. More than our “help” helping them to die, they need our help to live by carrying their burdens until they can see clearly again. We must never come to the day in our society where the definition of help is, “Well if you really want to die then here are some pills.”
The act of Mr. and Mrs. Gute says to all those who are suffering with Alzheimer’s that their lives might not be worth living. It implies that only life sailing and golfing is worth living. It also suggests that our lives might not be worth living either. Their suicide also says that suffering with a disease, a handicap, or a lifelong difficulty or mental disease is not of value and such people should be offered a “way out.” This is false. My grandmother lived for ten years with debilitating Multiple Sclerosis (MS). I learned love and compassion from my grandfather who cared for her every need and waited on her hand and foot. All the grandkids ate our lunch of Spaghettios in the card table set up in her bedroom when we came over. Every life has worth, dignity, value, and meaning and is worth living in spite of how it looks. We should never get to the place in our society where people are seen as burdens. While life might be burdensome, no one is ever a burden.
Jesus came into this world, didn’t He? The Romans weren’t any less barbaric. Jesus preached a message that set the world on fire. It was a message that suffering was not something to be avoided but something to be embraced. Jesus taught that true living and peace were found in and through suffering. Jesus showed the new way by His life and death. Through pain and great personal agony He redeemed the world of sin and death. Whoever says that there is no value in suffering has not come to understand the cross of Jesus. Christ knows our suffering. He bore it, and carried it for us and passed through it and we will too.
In my college years my Uncle Fritz killed himself. Uncle Fritz lived in the house behind us. Uncle Fritz was struggling silently. The family hardware store was closing down after three generations and I imagine that he didn’t know what he was going to do. Uncle Fritz had a dry sense of humor. He always took time to joke with us kids when we came into the hardware store. Uncle Fritz was a Christian. Every car he owned had his trademark license plate on the front of the car which said, “See you in church on Sunday.” The pastor at the funeral said that his Portals of Prayer were opened to that morning’s devotion. My Aunt Gail drove home to open the garage door to a sight that no one should ever have to see. We shake our heads. It was not noble or loving what he did. Uncle Fritz sinned against us. He sinned against God. He sinned against this world.
Recounting this story is emotional for me. I loved my Uncle Fritz. I am sorry that he was suffering. I wish I could have done something to help him. I confess the ways I failed him. Jesus has forgiven me. We all loved him, yet at that moment something snapped. He felt that he couldn’t continue on any more. His decision was not dignified or loving but cowardly. It casts a shadow on our family for this life. To kill oneself is one of the most selfish acts imaginable.
And yet the Lord forgives Uncle Fritz. It does not make the action right or good, but suicide is not the unforgivable sin, unbelief is the unforgivable sin. The blood that flowed from Uncle Fritz’ head inflicted by a .22 caliber pistol was overcome by the blood of Jesus Christ that paid for all sins. We have all inflicted upon ourselves all manner of choices and sin and harm. We all failed in our fight against the devil. Jesus blood speaks a louder word. Suicide speaks of sin and despair and shame, but Jesus blood cries out for forgiveness. As the Scriptures say, “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all iniquity.”
Jesus said, “Take up the cross and follow me.” That means in this life we are going to suffer. To avoid suffering is to avoid God’s will for our lives. To avoid suffering is to turn from the way in which God wishes to school us. He schools us through times of great pain when we feel alone and want to die. It is not through greatness that He works his will in us. It is not through tennis matches and golf tournaments that He increases our faith. He does his best work through suffering and the cross. Jesus too did not want to suffer, and yet He resigned Himself to God’s will. “Nevertheless not my will but Thy will be done,” He said in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Do not be fooled. Death is not the answer. Death is never the answer. Jesus is the answer. In Him we have, hope, forgiveness, peace, and real living in and amidst suffering and the cross.
On Wednesday I went to Miller Park. Standing in the galley I observed a young man in his twenties who was strapped in a wheel chair and was facing the direction of the field. The man was entirely incapable of moving his body or showing expressions or emotions on his face. Music came over the loud speakers. For what seemed like several minutes, three of his caregivers were shaking his arms and body up and down to the beat of the music and making him “dance.” It was to such an extent that I thought, “By all means don’t hurt the man!” They were all trying to get him on the ballpark camera. They were laughing and singing and dancing. The one caretaker beamed one of the biggest smiles I have seen in a long time. These days the world says that you can only live if you are healthy and of sound mind and body. We have a message in Jesus. None of this is true. Of all the people around me at Miller Park on that day it was the man in the wheelchair and his caretakers who were the ones who were really living and enjoying life to the fullest. They showed me on that day that every life, however difficult, is worth living.