ISSUES OF FAITH: Terminal joy through faith

STEPHANIE PACKER IS a 37 year old mother of four, who was diagnosed with terminal scleroderma, an autoimmune disease, eight years ago.

Packer was given three years to live, and so she has survived that by five years now.

Along with the terminal scleroderma, she is a terminally joyful person, often criticized for smiling in the face of impending death.

She is a faithful Catholic from Orange County, Calif., and has made national headlines in her fight to live.

We probably remember Brittany Maynard, another Californian and also like Packer, 29 years old when she received the news that she had brain cancer and under much publicity, chose to end her life.

“It glamorized suicide as a heroic event,” Packer said.

She chooses to look at her terminal illness in a different light.

“It is really important to me to leave a legacy for my kids,” she said in a recent interview. “There is so much beauty in this world, and we move way too fast for it. I appreciate everything God has given me, and appreciate all the things around us. It is very hard to slow down. … I intend to leave my kids knowing we embraced life, and we embraced love: love of family and friends, and all these things.

“And I really just hope I can just keep my sight on what God wants: who he wants me to be. He gave me this opportunity and responsibility to be a mother to these four kids, and the way I live the end of my life is directly going to affect how they live their future life.

“And I’m accountable for that and how they see the world.

“Once you decide not to be consumed by the illness, you can find joy. I get knocked all the time because I’m smiling. People say some of the most horrible, hateful things because I’m smiling: like I must not know what pain is … or if I was in pain, I would be upset, depressed, angry and all these things that we all go through in phases.

“But that’s not what God wants for us. He wants you to embrace who you are and who he wants you to be in this moment and go from there. And that’s exciting. It makes me want to open up my eyes in the morning, because I want to see what God is going to do next in my life, the lives of my kids and in the world around me.”

Many years ago my mom had a very aggressive, rare form of cancer.

The prognosis wasn’t good.

I learned to pray during that time and my mom lived another 20 years.

We don’t know why God allows some to leave us early, and others to stay with us when we lean on God and prayer — but the witness of those suffering, if they are in a joyful state is so comforting.

Packer also talks about her insurance company’s decision not to pay for her chemotherapy medication, but for a $1.20 copay she could purchase the assisted-suicide drugs.

Her story went national at that point — CNN, the Washington Post, NPR — until finally a judge ruled in her favor.

“Woman, great is your faith,” Jesus said to the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:28.

To Bartimaeus Jesus said, “Your faith has saved you” (Mark 10:52).

To the one leper who returned to thank him, Jesus said, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”

And on and on.

All of us will transition to a non-physical life, at some point in time.

God desires us to go on his time though the world is filled with healings of a miraculous nature.

Jesus is pretty clear that faith is really the common denominator in physical and spiritual health, recovery and healing.

Someone somewhere is praying for you or you are on your knees seeking, imploring God.

“Woman, great is your faith,” Jesus said.

We transition into summer and beautiful weather, and family and children, and still, things might go not as we had hoped.

If we are honest with ourselves, we realize that they rarely do.

And that is OK. As Packer said so beautifully, “… it makes me want to open my eyes in the morning.”

To see what God wants, and that my friends, is joy.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Mike Acheson is director of religious education at Queen of Angels Roman Catholic Church in Port Angeles and St. Joseph Parish in Sequim. His email is

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