Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What is Dying with Dignity?


My first thought when I read about Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old who took medication to end her life after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, was, "You go, Girl."

The Oregon, Washington, and Vermont Death with Dignity laws allow mentally competent, terminally-ill adult state residents to voluntarily request and receive a prescription medication to hasten their death. This is one of many end-of-life care options available in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont. - See more at: http://www.deathwithdignity.org/access-acts#sthash.pBkIu0Sc.dpuf
Brittany moved to Oregon because of that state's Death With Dignity Law, which allows mentally competent, terminally ill adult state residents to voluntarily request and receive prescription medication to hasten their death. If you haven't read about it, here's her story:

Brittany Maynard, advocate for "Death with Dignity" dies

She was young. She knew she was going to die. And she knew it wasn't going to be pretty. And I'm going to assume that those close to her were on board with it.

A Vatican official denounced it, calling it an "undignified absurdity." My faith and my upbringing tells me that it's wrong, and that we can't play God. That the cards we are dealt is the hand we are stuck with. We don't get to decide when we come into this earth we don't get to decide when we leave. Those are the rules.

Then I put myself in Brittany's place. I don't have a husband, but I have children. If this happened to me, I can't imagine them having to go through all that, even though I wouldn't have had it any other way with my mom than to go through what she went through with her. See my dilemma here? I certainly don't have the funds to withstand years of treatment or hospital care. And I don't want to die a long, painful death if I don't have to. I want quality of life.

That's what my mom wanted. That's why she sought out the oncologist she did, because he believed in quality of life. She knew that he would provide her with the options that would allow her to be treated yet maintain quality of life. And she knew he would tell her when it was time to stop.

And he did. And I often wonder what she thought during those final months. Did she wish for death? Or was she valuing each and every day she had left? Or maybe a little of both? If given the option, I am nearly 100% sure that her faith would have prevented her from taking the measures that Brittany did - but then again, her situation wasn't the same as Brittany's.

So though I was accepting of Brittany's decision, because the non-judgey side of me realizes that I haven't walked a mile in her shoes, I really did wonder how I felt about it and if I would do the same thing if I was ever in a similar situation. Then I read this article, ironically in the Jesuit Post (I attended the Jesuit Marquette University, as did my mother and my oldest brother), written by Jason Welle, SJ:

On Love and Dignity and Dying

In short, the author tells the story of his brother's struggle with cancer and his initial thought of ending it all versus riding it out."I don't know," he tells his brother. "... what I do know is that we love you so much, and we want to be able to love you all the way through this; we would support you, and it would never be a burden on us to be with you and care for you even in your suffering. Tony, please, let us do that for you. Let us love you to the end, whenever that may be.”

Mr. Welle takes offense that the option of taking one's own life, even as a relief from dying a painful death, is known as "death with dignity." That the real dignity "isn’t opposed to suffering; sometimes in suffering dignity reveals its truest face."

I'm not saying this very eloquently, so read the article. It's hard to explain. If my mom would have chosen to move to Oregon to take advantage of this law, I would have supported her. But when she became sick, there was no doubt in my mind that I would go through this with her. I wanted to do that for her. I wanted to love her until the end.

And there was no doubt that she suffered. Were there parts of it that were undignified? Certainly. Did she suffer with dignity? Yes, she did. She made sure of that, her family made sure of that, and hospice made sure of that. Did she die with dignity? Absolutely.

But I get it. I get both sides. And I'm torn. Then it occurs to me, I don't have to be on one side or the other. My heart breaks for Brittany and her family and what they must have gone through and are going through. My heart breaks for the thought process that got Brittany to realize her fate and the bravery (mind you I say bravery, not courage) to publicly make the decision she made, and how many waverings she must have had in her own mind to come to that decision. But again, if she had the support of those who loved her, then that's the whole battle right there.

And if it was me, in her situation, I don't know that I wouldn't have thought of doing the same thing. I just don't know if I could have. I don't know if I could have played that last hand that's supposed to be God's call. I guess it would depend on who was left in my life and the role they played. For Brittany, it seemed everyone was accounted for, so maybe that made it "easier." My struggle, I think, would be with not so much who is left behind, but who is waiting ahead.

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