Death with Dignity.
Such lyrical, poetic branding.
I live in Oregon, home to the Death with Dignity laws, allowing terminally ill people the right to die when they want.
To be clear this is not suicide.
Suicide doesn’t even belong in this discussion. That’s a topic about which I’ve written plenty but it is not the same thing.
Death with Dignity applies to people with terminal illnesses who want the right to choose their last breath, and how it comes.
People like Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old who moved to Oregon from California after she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Brittany was a beautiful woman and her story is heart-wrenching. Only the heartless would deny this woman the right to end her own life peacefully, or so the implication embedded in the branding would imply.
I am neither heartless nor a right-wing fanatic. Nor have I been excluded from the trauma of watching someone die from brain tumors.
I walked this walk with my own mother not that long ago. Many of you walked that journey right alongside me, thank you for that. It meant a lot to me. To Mama.
I have to tell you that I don’t like this whole Death with Dignity thing. Part of it is the branding, marketing, the slick ad campaigns, the big money thrown behind the campaign. Brittany, young and beautiful and vivacious, makes the most excellent of spokespeople. She said seeing the Death with Dignity act go nationwide would give meaning to her life.
Her plea has the overtones of a Shakespearean tragedy: Romantic in the most terrifying of ways.
Brittany made a deathbed plea for a nationwide Death with Dignity act:
“If they can relate to my story, if they agree with this issue on a philosophical level, to get out there and do what we need to do to make a change in this country.”
For people to argue against her decision seemed the height of evil, Brittany said.
You couldn’t get a better slant on this issue if you were paying a Wall Street Firm big dollars for it.
I only have prayers for Brittany and her family. I can’t imagine the pain her family has suffered, is suffering still. The notion that a person, any person, can take the suffering out of dying is simply wrong-headed.
All dying involves suffering, for the one dying and for the ones left behind.
Death with Dignity does not take the suffering away. It expedites death, but it does not negate suffering. There is anguish in death. Even in Brittany’s death. Perhaps that’s why death is referred to in Scriptures as the Enemy. We aren’t supposed to make friends with death. We aren’t supposed to treat it as a welcome companion. Or an escape hatch.
When did railing against death lose favor with the people?
Here’s what worries me about the Death with Dignity act. It’s brand implies that if you are terminally ill and don’t choose Death with Dignity you are going to die without dignity.
My mother suffered a great deal in her dying.
It was hard, hard, hard to watch.
It was even harder for her to do. Like Brittany, she didn’t want to die either. She had a lot of life left in her. She was alert up until the very last hours of her life. She kept her sense of humor. She made us laugh even through the tears. She was good at that. Always had been.
There was a lot of humility in her dying. My independent mother had to be bathed, toileted, dressed, fed, medicated. She became totally dependent upon others, something she loathed but learned to accept. Still she took joy in our moments together.
I keep thinking about that – about how her condition required her to turn to us, her kids, for guidance and counsel and wisdom. Every pill, every shot, every medical decision became a family one. We three kids would discuss matters privately – share our most honest thoughts, concerns, fears, responsibilities – and then sit down with Mama to discuss her options.
She often asked us what we thought she should do. And at every turn we said to her: Mama this is your life. We are here to support you whatever you choose.
We knew the radiation wouldn’t cure her.
We knew the chemo wouldn’t restore her to health.
We knew her death would be ugly, though in the end, it wasn’t as ugly as we had imagined.
I don’t know if Mama died with dignity but she did die with us three kids right there beside her, praying, crying, loving on her the best we could through those final moments.
I keep thinking about how we could have hastened our mother’s dying. We could have told her to forgo the medical care. We could have said: You are going to die anyway, so why bother. We could have said: We don’t have time to run you to the doctors, to the cancer clinic, to the pharmacy. It was true. None of us really had the time. We made the time. Collectively. We worked together the way families ought to work together. The way our own family has rarely worked together. We did it out of respect and love.
Our mother wasn’t a wealthy woman. There was no financial incentive to hasten her death. I think about that when I think about Death with Dignity… what happens in the family where there is a great deal of financial incentive to hurry the dying? Where’s the dignity in that?
A person only has to read one day’s headlines to understand that lengths of deceptive practices people will employ toward selfish ends. Plenty of people would rather their family members hurry up and die so that they don’t eat up the funds in medical care.
When she was diagnosed in August, 2012, doctors gave my mother six to eight weeks to live.
She lived to enjoy one more Christmas.
She lived to meet one more great-grandson.
Her family was always her true inheritance. The real riches of my mother’s life.
We romanticize this Death with Dignity act.
But imagine the great-grandmother dying, whose family just wants to hurry up and get this dying part over with so that they can return to their normal routines, and collect on that life-insurance policy and those savings grandma has amassed through her frugal living.
How many people accessing the Death with Dignity law are doing so because they feel an obligation to their family? A responsibility to hurry up and get on with it? How many of those access the law do so because ultimately they feel unwanted, unloved, or in the way of the living?
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain, a novel.