a man walks up a snow covered hilly road

Pain Is Not the Final Word

by Charles Lewis

I will not be defined by what I can’t do


It was a Saturday afternoon in December. I was getting dressed in our bedroom to go out for a birthday lunch with my wife. I had just turned 61 a few days before, but I wasn’t feeling my age. The two kittens we recently adopted were leaping around on our bed. Outside it was clear and cold—my favourite kind of weather.

At that moment, my life was very good. All the struggles over the years were finally paying off. I was married to a wonderful woman, and I was a well-known journalist who loved his work.

In the year leading up to that fateful Saturday, I had been to Italy, Israel and spent time hiking in the Rockies. We had paid off our house, giving us a measure of financial security.

More important still, I was also getting more immersed in my Catholic faith, a true blessing.

Then in a flash, everything changed. It started with extraordinary pain. I felt I’d been hit in the back with an ice pick. I remember falling to the floor from shock.

I thought that the pain would pass, but it grew worse by the second. Any movement caused my body to go into terrible spasms.

I had suffered, I soon found out, an attack of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine that squeezes the nerves causing continual jolts of pain. Why it happened in that instant I don’t know.

I spent the first 11 months from that moment in and out of delirium, hallucinating most of the time from huge doses of morphine. The morphine itself made me sick to my stomach, and at times the pain in my gut was worse than my back.

I lived life minute to minute, trying to find new ways to ease the pain, hoping to find a position that would release me for even a few precious moments.

The days were awful, but the nights were worse. In the dark, the pain seemed to magnify. My dreams were mainly nightmares—a result, I believe, of drugs and fear. I counted the hours till sunrise.

In November 2012, I had surgery. I was on the operating table for eight hours. In the months that followed, the pain did not improve as fast as I hoped. I felt like a total wreck. I ended up leaving my job, which for me was a bitter pill.

Over the next few years, the pain eased, to the point that smaller doses of morphine could make it tolerable. But even now, there are days when all I can do is lay in a fetal position and pray the pain away.

In the years leading up to this attack, I had been writing about euthanasia for the National Post in my role as religion and ethics reporter. I had come to the conclusion that euthanasia would descend on Canada, and when it did, it would change our society in a profound and dark way. Unfortunately, I turned out to be right.

The polls showed that the vast majority of Canadians wanted legal euthanasia. In June 2016, Parliament made it legal for those whose death is foreseeable. In the first year of legalization, 2,000 people chose to die through the assistance of their physicians.

The main reason people choose euthanasia is because of the fear of pain. Pain, in the popular imagination, also means a loss of autonomy and dignity.

As a Catholic, I felt that autonomy was a misreading of the purpose of our lives. We are meant to live in communion with others—especially with those who are suffering and need our help.

Dignity is not something imparted by man, but by God. We have it no matter what. The great Olympic swimmer and the young man wheelchair-bound all have dignity.

I soon realized that I was being called to be an even greater witness in the battle against euthanasia. I could not write for my paper, but I could speak. At least I could tell audiences now that pain for me was not a theory—I had lived through the worst of it and I was coming out the other side a better person for it.

You know, if I were a citizen of The Netherlands or Belgium, I could have my life snuffed out today. The law concerning euthanasia did not remain static in those countries. Nor will it here. Death for teens and the mentally ill is now being discussed. Chronic pain as a category won’t be far behind.

My life belongs to God, not to me. I will not be defined by what I can’t do. Instead, I will find joy in what I can.

I still want to be engaged in life and its myriad battles. I still want to write and enjoy my music. I still want to see my wife, my family, and my close friends. Work is no longer the epitome of everything. Prayer has an entirely new meaning. I live in communion with millions of others for whom each day is a battle.

Most of all, I want to warn people not to be seduced by the promise of a “dignified death” through euthanasia, which treats people as if they are burdens, and pain, as if it is the final word.

I take great comfort in the words of St. John Paul II. He taught me that pain is holy because it is connected with Christ’s passion.

“Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of Redemption,” he wrote. “Thus each man can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of life.”

Charles Lewis, a friend of Madonna House, is a former religion editor of the National Post, a national Canadian newspaper. He now writes a regular column for Toronto’s diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Register.

Reprinted with permission from the booklet, “What Defines Me?” published by the Sisters of Life