A therapist and family caregiver ponders the implications of being able to choose the manner of our life, and death.
Imagine being 29 years old, having just married the love of your life and then receiving a prognosis that you may have likely less than a few years to live. On New Years Day 2014, when most look forward to the next 12 months, Brittany Maynard and her family were confronted with a devastating dilemma. Does she choose to let the stage 4 Glioblastoma (brain tumor) that has menaced her body, take its course, or does she exercise the Death With Dignity law in the state of Oregon where she moved with her husband, since it is only one of 5 states in the country that permits medically supervised end of life? The others are Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico.
“On October 27, 1997 Oregon enacted the Death with Dignity Act which allows terminally-ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose. The Oregon Death with Dignity Act requires the Oregon Health Authority to collect information about the patients and physicians who participate in the Act, and publish an annual statistical report.”
Faced with the decision to suffer pain and seizures or take her last breath peacefully in her own bed, listening to music of her choosing, in the presence of her husband, mother, step father and best friend via taking medication prescribed for just such a purpose, she has consciously elected to take that route. She says that it will occur on November 1st, which is right after her husband’s birthday which she wants to celebrate with him.
According to the video she and her family created, this “bigger than life” presence lived each day to the fullest prior to the diagnosis and even now, with precious time running out, she traveled with her mother and friend to Alaska and to Yellowstone with her husband. Her intention still is to go to the Grand Canyon. Through their obvious pain, her family supports her freedom and embraces her passion for life for as long as she maintains it.
To film the video, Brittany partnered with Compassion & Choices which says it is “the leading nonprofit organization committed to helping everyone have the best death possible. We offer free counseling, planning resources, referrals and guidance, and across the nation we work to protect and expand options at the end of life.” When I watched the video initially, I questioned my own values around end of life choices and a person’s right to make them. Is this suicide?
As a therapist who has worked with many who have contemplated taking their own lives and some who have taken steps to make that happen, I have strong feelings about helping people move through the emotional pain that leads to an irreversible decision. I have also counseled survivors; those who lost loved ones as a result of suicide. I know the toll it takes on families and communities. I had two friends with extremely painful and debilitating medical conditions who lived in states that did not have such compassionate laws and as a result, in a dark moment, each of them ended their lives in violent ways, rather than the manner in which Brittany Maynard has mapped out for herself.
I roll back the clock in my own life and recall the six years I spent from 1992 to 1998 watching my husband struggle with the effects of Hepatitis C and the quality of life he was denied as a result. Severe pain that didn’t always respond to narcotics, mental status changes that contributed to depression, anxiety and confusion, treatment that was ineffective, requiring care with ADL’s (activities of daily living), losing control of bodily functions; a sense of dignity that went out the window when the disease came knocking on the door. Had he known that he was going to eventually die from this disease, rather than have the liver transplant we had hoped and prayed for, if he had the option, would he have chosen death with dignity, rather than in the nearly 6 week coma in an ICU that awaited him before his passing? Would I have had the courage to support him in that choice?
It is a moot point, since it unfolded as it did and he took his final breath after being taken off life support. My prayers are with this lovely young woman and her family who I know will continue to celebrate her life as they grieve her death.