Death is not Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black. Death is not anything like you have seen in the movies. There is no quiet symphony, there are no fireworks. Death can be violent and messy, or it can be as quiet as a shadow, and it can create some of the worst memories imaginable — memories that will never fade. Many of us, sadly, know this.
For seven years I watched someone I love slowly die. Knowing, intimately, what I could expect from such an illness, should I ever be diagnosed with the same disease, scares me. It’s that fear that drives me to be on the lookout for genetic markers. It’s that memory of pure awfulness that keeps me fundraising or walking for cures. I’m terrified I will one day be a patient in need of a caregiver the way I was a caregiver for so many years.
I get it: I absolutely understand why a person would want, if possible, to be in control of death.
I don’t know for certain what I would do. I don’t know what I would feel like deciding or be capable of deciding in that moment. I’d like to hope I would have some sort of plan in place. I’d like to think I could.
Rather than accept a horrible death, 29-year-old Brittany Maynard refused. She found out a year ago that the dreadful headaches she was suffering from weren’t normal and that they weren’t going to go away. Maynard had terminal brain cancer. A few days after her diagnosis, she had a partial craniotomy and a partial resection of her temporal lobe. This spring she found out not only had her tumor come back, but that it was even more aggressive. Her doctors told her she had six months to live.
In an interview with People magazine, Maynard shares, “I’ve discussed with many experts how I would die from it, and it’s a terrible, terrible way to die.”
Maynard doesn’t want to die a terrible death. “Being able to choose to go with dignity is less terrifying.”
In 1997, Oregon became the first state to establish a Death with Dignity Act. Washington, Vermont, Montana, and New Mexico also now have death with dignity laws. These laws outline how terminally ill patients who are of sound mind can ask for a prescription to “hasten their death.” Patients must be able to administer the medication themselves.
Advocates of the Act are firm that death with dignity is not suicide “because the person is in the process of dying and seeking the option to hasten an already inevitable and imminent death.”
Maynard says she considered passing away in a hospice facility in her hometown, but the personal and medical risks were too great for her to gamble with. She and her entire family have relocated to Oregon and she has already filled the prescription that will put her in charge of death’s date, which she decided would be November 1.
“Now that I’ve had the prescription filled and it’s in my possession, I have experienced a tremendous sense of relief. And if I decide to change my mind about taking the medication, I will not take it. Having this choice at the end of my life has become incredibly important. It has given me a sense of peace during a tumultuous time that otherwise would be dominated by fear, uncertainty, and pain.”
I can not imagine finding out I only had a few months to live. I can not imagine how my family would react, what we would do. Just thinking about it makes me shiver.
Talking about death is never easy, but we have to. And if we’re a parent, we really have to. Decisions have to be made and we’re the best person to make them. The Mayo Clinic suggests you think about the following when creating a living will:
- Who will have custody of your child? If you are divorced or single you need to know who should be the guardian of your child should anything happen to you.
- Who will be your power of attorney or patient advocate?
- What treatments, if any, do you want used to be kept alive?
- Do you plan on donating your organs?
- How important to you is it to be independent and self-sufficient? Do you want treatment to extend your life in any situation? Would you want treatment only if a cure is possible?
Talk to your spouse about your decisions, talk to your best friends, talk to your doctor. Write up a plan with an attorney, and update it as often as you need or want to.
I wish Brittany Maynard and her family so much peace in the time that they have with each other. I think it’s commendable that she has put the spotlight on herself during such a private moment so that more people can be aware of death with dignity laws and have better awareness of compassionate end-of-life choices.
Image Credit: Brittany Maynard Fund VideoMore On