Update: On March 22, 2015, Kara Tippetts passed into her eternal, new life with Jesus after a well-fought battle with breast cancer lasting over two years. Her blog, Mundane Faithfulness tells her story. 

To be, or not to be — that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.”  (Hamlet: 3.1.1-56-64)

Kara Tippetts and Brittany Maynard, two women who have struggled with terminal cancer, embody the very essence of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy. Both young, both beautiful, both with families who love them, they asked the question, “To Be or Not to Be?” and delivered very different answers.

To Be…

Prior to her diagnosis with cancer in 2012, Kara Tippetts and husband of sixteen years, Jason, had just begun a church ministry in Colorado Springs, CO. They had already survived a painful split with a previous ministry and evacuation from their home of only ten days to escape the Waldo Canyon fire, one of the worst in Colorado’s history. Although their new house was spared destruction, two weeks later Kara discovered a lump in her breast which would prove far more devastating. The reality of stage four progressive breast cancer, a radical hysterectomy, countless blasts of radiation and eventually brain cancer very soon robbed Kara’s family of ordinary moments.

In Kara’s words, “It seemed ridiculous. Impossible. Hopeless.”

So how does Kara face the knowledge that she must plan for her funeral in her thirties? In her new book The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the midst of Life’s Hard, Kara admits, “My hope is not in a cure today. My hope is not in the absence of suffering and comfort returned. My hope is in the presence of the One who promises never to leave or forsake, the One who declares ‘nothing can separate you from my love'” (Romans 8:39).

Kara chooses, in Hamlet’s words, “to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

Why choose to suffer? Kara answers, “God has walked me through the valley of the shadow and showed me what true beauty is…and He built a depth into my story that a life without suffering would never have known.”

Rather than wishing for the peace that she knows her death will bring her broken body, Kara “agree[s] to the hot flashes, the cutting, the pain, the discomfort and the struggle to live in the small moment that is now. I struggle for the conclusion, I wrestle with the brokenness, and I pray, oh how I pray for more days.”

When asked how her journey has affected her family, Kara answers, “God has deepened our love, helped us in our weakness to begin to have an imagination for heaven and met us in such gentle grace where we cling…I don’t struggle with dying, but I…lose my breath when I think of my family watching me suffer through finding my way to heaven…I will see their fears in letting me go and knowing the graces that will follow.”

…Or Not To Be

You may know Brittany Maynard’s beautiful face from the cover of People magazine October of 2014. On January 2 of 2014, just as she and husband Dan Diaz were hoping to have a child, Brittany learned that what she thought were migraine headaches was actually one of the largest brain tumors her doctors had ever seen. She was only 29. After desperate in-depth research, Brittany found that any treatment available to her would not save her life but only be utterly painful and delay the inevitable by a couple of months.

At that point, Brittany and Dan moved from California to Oregon, one of five states with a “right to die” law enabling doctors to prescribe a pill that terminal patients may take to end their lives “with dignity.” According to the website Compassion & Choices which sponsors The Brittany Maynard Fund, “For anyone who takes the prescription, it means falling off to sleep and peacefully passing on.” Or as Shakespeare says, “…by a sleep to say we end/The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, ‘Tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished.”

In a video that went viral, Brittany revealed her plan to work through her bucket list, enjoy each moment with those she loved, and then peacefully end her life on November 1st with her husband, mother, and step father around her.

She posted one more video before that date which encouraged those remaining to “pay it forward” and ended with this final message: “I want to see a world where everyone has access to death with dignity, as I have had. My journey is easier because of this choice.”

Two Women, Two Choices, and a Letter to Connect Them

When Kara Tippetts read of Brittany Maynard’s plan to choose her time and place for dying, she wrote her a letter in October 2014 which included these excerpts:

“Brittany, your life matters, your story matters, and your suffering matters. Thank you for stepping out from the privacy of your story and sharing it openly…I am sorry that we are both being asked to walk a road that feels simply impossible to walk….it is good for our culture to know what is happening in Oregon. It’s a discussion that needs to be brought out of the quiet corners…and into the light. Dear heart, we simply disagree. Suffering is not the absence of goodness [or] the absence of beauty, but perhaps it can be the place where true beauty can be known….it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed….Will you hear my heart ask you, beg you, plead with you — not to take that pill. Yes, your dying will be hard, but it will not be without beauty….No, hastening death was never what God intended. In our dying, He does meet us with His beautiful grace.”

When November 3 dawned along with the news of Brittany’s passing, again Kara responded, this time in her blog, Mundane Faithfulness:

“So, how should we respond to this pain, this hurt, this brokenness? Well, Jesus was not vague. He gave us an example. He did not say to enter into hot debates over ethical issues.  Jesus did not tell us to speak unkindly to one another. He simply exhorts us to go, go and bind up the wounds of the broken, love the devastated, live his BIG LOVE to the hurting world around us. I don’t have the right words in response to Brittany. I simply have prayers as I stumble through today.” (excerpt)

Various support groups from Portland, Oregon to Annapolis, Maryland gathered on November 19th, which would have been Brittany Maynard’s 30th birthday, to honor her memory and bring attention to her cause.  Compassion & Choices website sponsors a Take Action for Brittany fund to further her dream to enact Death With Dignity laws in more states across America.

Meanwhile, Kara Tippetts endures another round of treatment. You can follow her journey and receive updates on her condition by subscribing to her blog Mundane Faithfulness. Expect to be inspired.

These two women have youth, cancer, and love in common.  Both have taken their dying public and made us think about what constitutes a life well-lived and death on our own terms.

So what does it mean to die with dignity? Does it mean deciding when and where death happens? Or does it mean fully living life right up to the very end, whenever that may be?