“I have lived all my life making all the important decisions about myself that I needed to make. I don’t want my disease to make the final decision for me.”
The New York Times reported Friday, that the California State Legislature gave its final approval to a bill that would allow doctors to help terminally ill people end their lives.
If Governor, Jerry Brown, signs off, California will join three other states—Oregon, Washington and Vermont—that have enacted Death with Dignity Laws.
“Death with Dignity Laws Allow mentally competent, terminally ill, adult State residents to voluntarily request and receive a prescription medication to hasten their deaths; one of many end-of-life care options that are available.” See more at Death with Dignity.
I thought of my friend “Samantha” who had helped her friend die all on her own, and of the weight she carried for having done it.
In 1988 my friend Samantha had a friend who had been diagnosed with AIDS. In those days, people with that diagnosis didn’t survive—as they both well knew.
Samantha maintained close contact with her beloved friend throughout the last two years of his life and over the course of that time, he extracted a promise from her.
“I can’t ask my wife,” he said. “She wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Samantha began squirreling away pain medications for her friend while he went without them against the day that he would take them all at once.
The event had a lasting impact on Samantha.
She suffered through moments of doubt: “Could he have gotten better? Lived longer?” and self-recrimination, “Who was I to take another’s life, even though he himself wanted me to do it?” and almost worse, through the sheer loneliness of their having to make and carry out the decision on their own in secrecy.
“I could have been prosecuted for murder,” she flatly told me.
During that period of time I was Volunteer Director at a large teaching hospital and I’ll never forget the day “Lou,” one of my favorite volunteers who had become a close personal friend, came into to my office to tell me that he couldn’t volunteer any more.
“I feel like my life’s pouring out of me like a faucet that can’t be turned off,” he said and I couldn’t deny it—that was exactly how he looked.
It was a short a time later that I flew to Denver where Lou had gone to die at home with his mother. I made arrangements to stay overnight so as to have the time to visit and to say goodbye to him but when I got there he was either in agony or so drugged that he was barely conscious. It was one or the other—and neither was what Lou wanted. I knew what he wanted, because he had told me. But at that time I couldn’t help him, I just didn’t know how and, while his doctors did know how, none of them could help him either.
It was against the law.
One of the aspects of the Death with Dignity movement that legislatures do not address is how legalizing a terminally ill patient’s voluntary death—a compassionate and humanitarian act—affects the loved ones and family members who would, if they could, help their loved ones to die anyway.
By making it legal, the Legislators take the weight of secrecy out of this act of love—for that is what it is—and bring it to light so that the people involved do not need to feel afraid. With the stroke of a pen they provide the legal support and agreement that affirms that a person choosing to end their own life is making a valid, appropriate and viable choice—that no one will shun or prosecute or shame those who chose it.
It takes the act out of the hands of friends and family and puts it into the hands of professionals who themselves have often times wished they too could do more than merely stand by and watch a patient suffer—especially if they knew the patient wanted to end their suffering themselves before the bitter end.
Death with Dignity laws make it clear that while dying according to one’s own schedule rather than according to the timetable of a disease or illness is not everyone’s choice—it is however, a choice that everyone has the right to make for themselves.
“The greatest human freedom is to live, and die, according to one’s own desires and beliefs. From advanced directives to physician-assisted dying, death with dignity laws provide options for the dying to control their own end of life care.” ~ Death with Dignity
In the words of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old San Francisco resident with terminal brain cancer who moved to Oregon in order to take advantage of the Death with Dignity laws:
“I hope for the sake of my fellow American citizens that I’ll never meet that this option is available to you. If you ever find yourself walking a mile in my shoes, I hope that you would at least be given the same choice and that no one tries to take it from you.
When my suffering becomes too great, I can say to all those I love, “I love you—come be by my side and come say goodbye as I pass into whatever’s next.
I will die upstairs in my bedroom with my husband, mother, stepfather and best friend by my side and pass peacefully. I can’t imagine trying to rob anyone else of that choice.”
I was pulling into my driveway shortly after I had read of California’s new Death with Dignity law and felt my friend Lou’s presence in the back seat. He was leaning over my shoulder, talking into my ear.
“Way to go, California!” he was saying. “Way to go!”
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock