‘Lucas is dependent on me for everything. And it is joy. I take care of him with joy. I do it out of love.”
At the same time, she was caring for her newborn son, Kristen Hanson was caring for her husband, James Joseph, who would die only weeks later, just after Christmas. About that joy and self-sacrificial love, she says, “Why should it be any different at the end of life?”
Only a few months after J.J.’s death, Kristen answered a call to testify in Albany, N.Y., against assisted suicide. Her family felt called to that mission, opposition to assisted suicide, when J.J., a Marine and Iraq war veteran, was diagnosed with brain cancer. His diagnosis had come at the same time that People magazine, among other media, was championing the cause of physician-assisted suicide, celebrating Brittany Maynard’s decision — she suffered from the same disease — to move to Oregon to end her life. Physician-assisted suicide is legal there.
Love gives people hope. It does that more often than not. We just have to be trusting enough to be vulnerable in front of others in our weakest moments. There was not a dry eye in the room as another Kristen shared how the Hansons had helped her family through their own heartbreaking adverse diagnosis, with all the hellish challenges it could bring.
Kristen has a renewed role in the Patients’ Rights Action Fund, continuing to tell the story of her family. Given only a few months to live, J.J. went on to have more than three years, and he and Kristen had that precious boy, Lucas, their second son, together. Kristen saw how the disabled are treated so differently so often, how their lives are dismissed as inconvenient. She saw how her own husband, as loved as he was, spent time depressed. Without support, education, and faith, he too could have succumbed to a culture — including, most perniciously, a medical culture— that communicates the lie that there is no point to living a life where there is pain and inconvenience (as if life is ever free of such things).
“Don’t be afraid” is the message of a new video featuring Kris and J.J. in his last days. J.J. was insistent that they film it, to share the love in the pain, to show that life remains. “To help other people. They need to know it’s okay for this to happen.” In the video, as if showing that he was journeying out of this world, his eyes are different from what they were when he was healthier. It’s devastatingly sad to watch, especially if you saw him in earlier days, an articulate advocate for a cause he felt called to. But it’s also powerful — it’s life-giving, regardless of the challenges one is facing. And no one is without challenges, and no one is without someone in his life who needs the gift of selfless love.
Part of the testimony of the Hansons is about the importance of appreciating that in the fight to advocate for the most vulnerable, J.J. never looked for extraordinary care.
“We’re going to keep going,” J.J. says in the video, struggling in his final weeks. “All we can do is today, and we can make today the best we can possibly can,” Kris says beside her beloved. “We are in love with each other,” J.J. adds. In a culture that is often confused about what exactly love is, the Hanson family provides powerful testimony.
“He looks at the world and he wants to make it a better place,” Kris says at the beginning of the PRAF video. And he still does. Looking at Kris’s gentle smile, you see what love is. It endures. And it is self-gift not only when the person is beside you but when he has to leave. Part of the testimony of the Hansons is about the importance of appreciating that in the fight to advocate for the most vulnerable, J.J. never looked for extraordinary care. He simply believed in miracles. He believed that there is a reason for the trials that come in life and that God makes use of them in ways that sometimes become clear in silent times of prayer, though we might fully know their purpose only after our days on earth are complete.
“Try to hold onto hope,” Kristen says. “For yourself. For those around you. For people you don’t even know. It could be changing their life and you don’t even know.”
When it comes to assisted suicide, she says, “You have to step back and think about who it could hurt, because it puts so many people at risk.” People with disabilities are especially close to her heart — people who often are not in the position to advocate for themselves and can become so easily dismissed. That’s dismissing human dignity.
“If we had listened,” Kristen recalls. “If we had given up hope, we would have missed out on so much. . . . Every moment we can share together is a gift.” Think of that in the best and the worst of times. That’s the gift Kristen and J.J. want to share with you still.
“Always and forever,” Kristen says about their love. They show us what that truly means, to this day.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association and has been amended since posting.