At the same time that she was caring for her newborn son, Kristen Hanson was caring for her husband, James Joseph, who would die shortly after Christmas of last year.
Only a few months after J.J.’s death, Kristen answered a call to testify in Albany, New York, against assisted suicide, the mission her family felt called to when J.J., a Marine who served in Iraq, was diagnosed with brain cancer. His diagnosis had come at the same time when People magazine, among other media, were celebrating Brittany Maynard’s decision to move to Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, to end her life. Maynard was suffering from the same disease as Hanson.
Purpose in Suffering
The Hansons had come to believe that God had a purpose in their suffering. And at a recent talk at the Napa Institute in California, the fruits of her courage were clear. Love gives people hope. We just have to be trusting enough to be vulnerable in front of others in our weakest moments.
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, she and J.J. went on to have more than three years and Lucas, their second son, together. Kristen saw firsthand how the disabled are often treated differently, 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 in which there is pain and inconvenience (as if life is ever free of such things).
Don’t be Afraid
“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 even in the most dire of circumstances. In the video, his eyes are different than they had been when he was healthier, as if showing how he was journeying out of this world. It’s devastatingly sad to watch, especially if you had seen him in earlier days, an articulate advocate for a cause he believed in. But it’s also powerful — it’s life-giving.
“We’re going to keep going,” J.J. says in his halting speech in the video from his final weeks.
“All we can do is today and we can make today the best we possibly can,” Kristen says beside her beloved.
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“We are in love with each other,” J.J. adds. In a culture that is often confused about what exactly love is — if it is even plausible — the Hanson family offers continuing testimony.
“He looks at the world and he wants to make it a better place,” Kristen says of her husband at the beginning of the video. And he still does. Looking at Kristen’s gentle smile, you see what love is. It endures. Part of the testimony of the Hansons is appreciating that in their ordeal, J.J. never looked for extraordinary care. He simply believed in miracles and the existence of a reason for the trials that come in life, that God makes use of them in ways that sometimes become clear in silent times of prayer, though they may only be fully known after our earthly days are through.
Hold on to Hope
“Try to hold on to hope,” Kristen says. “For yourself. For those around you. For people you don’t even know. And 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 are often not in the position to advocate for themselves and can become so easily overlooked or dismissed. That’s dismissing human dignity.
“If we had given up hope, we would have missed out on so much,” Kristen recalls. 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.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor of National Review Online. An award-winning journalist and editor who has been praised for “editorial daring,” Lopez has covered issues as diverse as the left-wing takeover of the Girl Scouts to the war on terror. She writes frequently on bioethics, religion, feminism, education and congressional politics, among other topics.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.