Shawn Henfling explores the emotions and decisions associated with ending our life.
I recently read an article about a woman who had chosen the date she’d die. Brittany Maynard, diagnosed with Glioblastoma multiforme, has refused to consider her choice suicide. The form of brain cancer afflicting Brittany is arguably the most deadly, and has an average life expectancy of 14 months. Due in large part to the expected decline and an end that would otherwise be full of pain and suffering, she has chosen a peaceful and compassionate end to her life surrounded by family and friends. It will be a lethal drug combination prescribed by her doctor that will do the work, and though her decline has already begun, this decision will save her from the majority of the symptoms as the disease ravages her body. In a heroic twist, however, she will spend a good portion of the time she has left fighting to ensure that others are afforded the same right to end their lives through voluntary euthanasia. In the United States, we euthanize our pets and our livestock when the suffering outweighs the benefits and degrades their quality of life, but we do not universally guarantee that same privilege to our citizens.
Think about that for a moment. It pains us to watch our dogs and cats suffer, so much so that when we bring them to a vet and told there is no hope for recovery, we choose to end their suffering in a painless and humane manner. Why then, do we treat our friends, family, or even ourselves any differently? Is the pain of loss so great, so difficult to overcome that we refuse to acknowledge the fundamental right of a person to spare them further torment? Perhaps some people fear an unproven afterlife so much that we’ll endure any amount of suffering just to spare ourselves the possibility of being damned to an eternity in hell?
I can remember as a child seeing Dr. Jack Kevorkian on television, and having a vague understanding of the firestorm of controversy surrounding him. His apparatus, designed to assist people in their own death, was shown on every major network, with experts and laymen alike debating the ethics of such an act. I also remember some people who could not see beyond the walls of their own faith to the compassion inherent in such an act.
Do we, as participants in the lives of others, have the authority to tell a man or woman, suffering a slow and painful decline, that they must continue to bear the pain until the eventual and inevitable death? If that individual decides on a different course, shouldn’t we, as Brittany’s family and friends have done, rally around the decision and support the person at every turn? From the standpoint of someone who feels an insatiable need to “fix” everything, I wonder how her boyfriend must feel. His birthday, October 30th, will be the last he can celebrate with the woman he saw himself spending the rest of his life with. November 1st she will take her prescribed drugs and drift off. What must it be like to be confronted with a problem so great and insurmountable that the best solution is to accept euthanizing someone that makes your life complete. How, I wonder, has he gone about accepting the outcome and supporting her on her path while dealing with his own grief and pain? I question whether he has already begun the grieving process rather than reveling in every moment he has until the end.
I stated above that I need to fix things, and it can be a great hindrance at times. In my own anecdotal experience, many more of my male friends carry this personality trait with them than women, and I wonder we are conditioned to feel that way. I feel like it’s my job to make sure that everything goes right, and I take it personally when it does not. How would I deal with knowing I had a very specific and short amount of time left before saying goodbye forever? Would I then be able to help her enjoy her remaining moments and make them memorable for our children as well? How would I go about ensuring they looked back fondly on her time left instead of recalling only fear and sadness at the impending loss and emptiness? What if it were one of our children, incapable of making that decision for themselves? Can we possibly steel ourselves for the decision to finally say no to further treatment, that there really is no quality of life remaining?
My wife, Christine, and I have discussed this very issue at length, as well as my drive to fix every problem. I recalled a story I read on NPR’s website about a woman, Sandy, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She, like Brittany, was facing eventual death, and was unwilling to suffer the consequences of her disease. In both cases, there were non-negotiables for the people involved. For Brittany, the pain and suffering was an unfair burden for her and her family. In the case of Sandy, it was the loss of her intellectual capacity she feared most. It was Sandy’s story that spurred the latest and most productive conversation with Christine. I empathized with Sandy, having memories of my paternal grandmother stolen by a disease that took her very humanity and twisted it into something grotesque before finally stealing her life as well. More than anything else I have, I value my mind. I could learn to thrive without the use of my legs or arms, but I simply cannot face the loss of what makes me who I am. My wife has her own boundaries, things she simply will not want to live without. We’ve both discussed our end of life plans and are comfortable supporting those decisions against anyone who will fight back. The key now, however, is to ensure that we consult an attorney and put our wishes in writing. Grief and human nature play tricks on the mind, and despite our best intentions, we sometimes make decisions based on selfish motivations. Keeping things written down may help to ground our behavior and ensure our wishes are fully honored.
Above, I touched upon the unimaginable situation of parenting a child with a terminal disease. Unimaginable, that is, until you are put in that situation. How long can you go on prolonging life when the end is known? How does a man, a fixer like me, cope with the daily reminder that his child, no matter his efforts, will die. Will a passionate belief in mercifully euthanizing people facing a painful demise be enough to finally say enough is enough? When do you draw the line and stop treatment, especially when they are too young to understand what is going on? Would I, ever the realist, be capable of living in the moment, reveling in every second I have with my child rather than dwelling on their death and grieving before their passing? What effect would it have on their remaining time? How would my moods be perceived by the rest of my family? Would I become withdrawn and make things worse? Though the situations are all hypothetical, I surmise that I’d struggle to react positively, potentially ruining the remaining time left.
Brittany sees past her own future, and sees the struggle of others as representative of her own. Where she has been fortunate, able to uproot her family to a place friendly to assisted suicide, others are not as serendipitous. In most states, it is illegal for a doctor to knowingly prescribe a drug(s) that will cause a death, whether explicit consent is given or not. The fight she has chosen to become engaged in has been ongoing for decades. Why do we, as a society, react so violently when it is posited that the only person who should be in control of their life, and its end, is that person. We (arguably) wage entire wars to ensure a populace is treated humanely and ethically. If we are so fixated on basic, inalienable human rights, should we also be focusing on those rights here at home? Instead of fighting so hard to ensure that assisted suicide or euthanization doesn’t happen, shouldn’t we allow it, under certain conditions? By legalizing the practice, we can begin to lift the stigma and help families along the path creating more opportunities for happiness and a fulfilling closure to the lives of loved ones. Preparing for the inevitable, no matter how painful, will hopefully ease peoples passing and create better memories for those left behind.
Photo: Hartwig HKD