CULTURE OF LIFE: J.J. Hanson: Remembering a Catholic Witness to Life and Love Over Assisted Suicide

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Photo: J.J. Hanson hugs his wife, Kristen, upon his return from a combat tour in Iraq

The Marine Corps infantry veteran and advocate against assisted suicide died just before the new year.

By Peter Jesserer Smith, National Catholic Register, 1/16/18  

YULAN, New York — Kathleen Gallagher still keeps the voicemail she received from J.J. Hanson in 2015, when the Catholic Church was facing a momentous fight to stop the legalization of assisted suicide in New York state.

At the time, momentum seemed on the side of assisted-suicide advocates. Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, had become the face of the assisted-suicide movement and made national headlines when she declared she would take physician-prescribed pills to kill herself.

Hanson, a Marine Corps combat veteran from Iraq and Catholic husband and father, called Gallagher, the New York Catholic Conference’s director of pro-life activities, in early 2015 and told her that he had the same terminal diagnosis as Maynard: stage-four glioblastoma multiforme (GBM).

“I’m about the same age as Brittany Maynard,” Hanson said. “But I choose a very different path.”

Hanson died naturally Dec. 30 at 36 years old, beating a four-months-to-live prognosis by three years. Hanson had become the face of the fight against assisted suicide in New York as president of the Patients Rights Action Fund, explaining in a video that he did not want to deprive his wife, Kristen, and son James of any time they may have left together. Later, he would point to his infant son, Lucas, born in August, as one of the blessings that would never have happened had he chosen to kill himself with the help of a doctor.

Hanson dared the odds and opted for a treatment of brain surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and an experimental drug regimen that sent his cancer into remission. Over the next two years, he worked with Gallagher to form the New York Alliance Against Suicide and became the face of the movement. By 2017, advocates for assisted suicide had been stopped in the New York Legislature and the courts.

But Hanson’s cancer had come back with a vengeance, and he realized his time on earth was finally coming to a close.

Father Joselin Pens Berkmans, the parish priest in charge of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Yulan, a little rural town close to the New York-Pennsylvania border, told the Register he had expected few people to brave the “bomb cyclone” for Hanson’s 1pm funeral Jan. 4. Snow and ice were burying the Eastern seaboard. Many people, in fact, had braved the weather, but were forced to turn back.

But by 12:15pm, the small red-brick church’s pews and choir loft, which could only fit 200 people, were packed. By the time Mass started, the 150 chairs set up in the parish center, which had projectors to view the funeral Mass, were all filled, and even standing room was scarce. Even more showed up to remember and celebrate Hanson’s life at the memorial ceremony at Lake Champion.

Love of Life

Father Joselin had grown close with Hanson and his family since he came to the parish in November 2016. He would ask Hanson how he was doing at each encounter, and Hanson would reply every time, “Every day is getting better.”

At Christmas Mass, many people packed the church to show their support for Hanson, who was wheelchair-bound and knew he would be dying any day. Even then, Hanson told the priest, “Every day is getting better.”

Father Joselin said Hanson brought people back to living out the Catholic faith through his authentic, joyful witness. Many times, when people get sick, they turn away from God. Hanson, he said, did the opposite. To the very end, he tried to go to Mass, telling Father Joselin, “I come to church to see God and to see the people.”

“He brought so many people to church,” the priest said.

Jim Rizzi, a member of St. Anthony of Padua parish in his 70s, told the Register he and Hanson got to know each other by founding a men’s fellowship together. The men enjoyed each other’s company, and Rizzi would sometimes take him to cancer treatments. He was deeply impressed with how Hanson loved and honored his wife when they talked about marriage in their conversations. Hanson was a man who was always trying to help others and think about them first, Rizzi said.

“I was thinking, ‘I’d like to be him when I grow up,” he said.

“He loved life. He loved hunting and going out with his boys … just clean-cut fun.”

Rizzi said the region where they live can be a “rough-and-tough area” — but Hanson was never ashamed of his faith. “He was a staunch defender of it.”

“He wasn’t a holy-roller type of guy, but underneath his outgoing exterior, he was really a deeply spiritual man,” he added.

Living on God’s Time

Three years ago, when Hanson first learned he had terminal brain cancer, he talked with Tony LaRuffa, a former New York City detective, who had known Hanson for 30 years since kindergarten. LaRuffa told the Register that Hanson shared he believed God had given him this disease for a reason. He did not know what that reason was at the time, but said he would accept it — even though it was not easy.

At the very end, when Hanson realized he was going to die soon, he told LaRuffa he had a kind of “vision” about what was going to happen. He had felt someone touch his shoulder and say: “You’re gonna get to the end of the path, and you’re gonna be all right.”

LaRuffa said Hanson was always thinking about how he could help other people. Growing up, Hanson got into Irish set dancing to keep the tradition alive in their community, and he wanted to get involved in politics to help his town, the county and state to be better. His “You Can’t Hurt Steel” foundation — named after the Hanson family motto — focused on helping families in difficult circumstances. LaRuffa drove Hanson to some of his radiation treatments, and Hanson would always ask about other people who were sick or needed help.

“It was never about him,” LaRuffa said. “He lived three years, and you’d never know he had a death sentence.”

“He’s going to be missed … but if you’re lonely, feeling dark and depressed, you got somebody to pray for you.”

‘A Blessing in My Life’

Hanson’s funeral Mass touched many hearts, with some even deciding to come back to the Church. Gallagher, who had become friends with Hanson and drove four hours from Albany through the blizzard to attend the funeral, said it was the “most uplifting Mass” of her life. Both the Mass and the “celebration of life” that followed afterward really drove home the message of hope and trust in God and his timing.

Father Joselin’s words in his homily deeply touched her: “J.J. is looking down on us and smiling — all he asks is to look up and smile back at him.”

Gallagher told Hanson in 2017 that she was enormously thankful for everything he gave to the fight against assisted suicide. He turned it around and told her it was “a blessing in my life” to have had this illness and accomplish so much good with it.

“I really think we’re in a better position now because J.J. can intercede for us from heaven,” Gallagher said.

“He was more than we could have hoped for.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter. Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated that Hanson died Dec. 31; he died Dec. 30. The Register regrets the error.