DEATH WITH DIGNITY

When my sister Maureen was dying from melanoma, she did not choose to “go gently into that good night.” She fought. She took a slew of experimental drugs (including Thalidomide, which they thought might chase the tumors that were popping up all over her body.) It would not have been my choice, but I could say nothing. It was her life, her impending death, her personal relationship with her own mortality and, ultimately, it was her choice.

Brittany Maynard made the exact opposite choice, and had to move from California to Oregon in order to die the way she wanted — peacefully, with her loved ones surrounding her, before her pain became unbearable. It’s poignant that she has spoken to us from the grave; the video of her explaining her decision and pleading for change has given her an immortal voice in the debate over how people should die.

Imagine knowing that you are dying, suffering through the devastating symptoms that Brittany Maynard endured, and then having to pick up your life and move to a different state so that you can control the circumstances of your own passing. Moving is traumatic and stressful for healthy people. For someone in Brittany Maynard’s condition it must have been excruciating. Yet the debate rages on about whether or not other states, including California, should allow people to die as they wish to, with dignity as they define it.

Oregon’s Death With Dignity law has been in effect since 1997 and there have been no circumstances in which a person was murdered by a vengeful relative, or forced to consume the medication against their will. The same is true in Washington and Vermont, which both have similar legislation. The “slippery slope” that opponents warn about hasn’t occurred.

Death is a difficult subject. We don’t like to think about our own mortality, yet it looms in front of us whether we are ill or not. Oftentimes fear paralyzes us. If we just don’t think about death, some part of us whispers, maybe we can stave it off, ensure that it won’t come knocking on our door for a long, long time. We know that makes no sense, but there is that irrational part of us that thinks, as a child would, ‘If I close my eyes, you can’t see me.’ Maybe much of the controversy over Death with Dignity legislation is based in fear. If there is a law in place, we can’t close our eyes. It limits our escapist tendencies and desires.

But Brittany Maynard left us something else besides her courageous and very public choice. She showed us that by accepting death and orchestrating her own end the way she wanted, she gained peace of mind. I’m sure she had moments of fear, even terror, but what was so evident in her communication to the world was her calmness and her serenity. Death is inevitable for all of us. Sometimes we have no choice how we die. Fate blindsides us and in a moment we’re gone. But if we have the opportunity to bring the sweetness of life and its freedoms to the moment of our death, why would anyone say we don’t have that right?

3 Responses to DEATH WITH DIGNITY

  1. dan black says:

    Brilliant and poignant piece of writing Ms. Davis. After watching most of my family having to endure the horrible end as a result of cancer ( Mom, Dad, Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, Cousins…) Your conclusion, “But if we have the opportunity to bring sweetness of life and its freedoms to the moment of our death, why would anyone say we don’t have that right?”, rings so very true.

    Thank you for writing about a topic that most fear.

    db

  2. Howard Bronson says:

    Dear Patty,

    We met several years ago through Dr. Leroy Perry. I have watched you evolve through your writing and humane causes and I think you’ve arrived at a place of true wisdom in many genres. Your Death with Dignity piece is both courageous and insightful. It breaks my heart that we’re not further along in our medical research for many forms of cancer but as it stands, Brittany made a courageous albeit heartbreaking choice. There are far too many people in this world who insist that we only think the way they want us to think. But ultimately, we must make our own choices for our life, either for our own serenity or sometimes, for our peace in passing. The other insight I gleaned from Brittany’s short life is just that; life is short and we ought to cherish every sweet moment. Thanks for sharing the goodness of your heart. And may God smile upon your soul, Brittany.

  3. Beautifully written as are all your blogs!

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