To Be, or Not To Be

In my last post, I talked about prolonging life.

Today’s is about speeding death.

pill bottle

Or not.

Two very different newsmakers coincided this past week: Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer who went public with her decision to end her life this Nov. 1.

And Pope Francis, who opened his Synod on the Family with these words to the prelates gathered to discuss the nitty-gritty of family life: “Let no one say ‘this cannot be said.’”  That is, don’t hold back because of fear of what other bishops, or he, might think. 

Maynard has spoken very openly about her belief in her right to choose how she will die and when. Without in any way judging that decision, absolutely without any intent to condemn it, I’d like to speak equally frankly and openly about an alternative. Not for Maynard’s benefit, but for those whose lives, or deaths, her decision is influencing. And since this is a blog about exploration–mostly mine, but hopefully, also yours–I hope you’ll join in the conversation. Though in respectful dialogue, as Pope Francis has requested on other occasions: listening as much as talking, and attacking not at all.

Maynard seems to be a young woman who’s leapt into life full tilt, and if you haven’t followed her story, click on one of the blue texts and read it and watch her video for yourself.  She is choosing euthanasia (definition “easy or painless death”, from two Greek words meaning “good death”) because physicians have explained to her that her natural death may include morphine-resistant pain, as well as the loss of her faculties. And because she is young and otherwise healthy, it’s possible that she will linger in this state for some time.

She wants, instead, her death to be on her own terms. At a time she chooses–Nov. 1, the day after her husband’s birthday  (ironically, All Saints’ Day); in a place she chooses–her own bedroom; in a manner she chooses–with a pill her physician prescribed, and which she apparently carries with her at all times. It’s a “great relief,” she says, to know she has it.

Be honest here. We all want a “good death.” We all want an “easy death.” Which generally translates into one with as little pain and suffering as possible, yes?

Which is pretty much also what we all want out of life. That it’s pain-free. Easy. “Good.”

Which latter we know is pretty much impossible. Or at least, not always in our control.

Remember when you first had to say to your child (not in these words, exactly, but in some gentler and more nurturing way): “life isn’t fair.” And, “life is hard”?

Remember the first (or last–mine was only this morning) time you had to remind yourself of this?

Living is about coping and very often just putting one foot in front of the other even and especially when we most don’t want to.

Some of us, myself included, have reached points where the pain of life was so unbearable that we were prepared to call it quits, and if anyone among you doubts the existence and the at-times unbearableness of psychic or emotional pain, let me congratulate you at having had a blessed life. I didn’t.

But in the words of some Sondheim lyric or other, “I’m still here.”

Yet isn’t it in these hardest moments that we’ve learned, grown, the most? Isn’t in those hard moments of our children’s lives that they’ve grown the most? So that even if we parents wish we could ease their passage, we know, deep down, they’re better off if we don’t?

There’s a wonderful bit in author Louise Penny‘s latest mystery, The Long Way Home, which describes what happened when an elderly woman who’d taken on herself the incubation of a pair of duck eggs helps one of them to hatch. Because it seems to be having trouble pecking its way out, she gently breaks open the shell. Freeing it. The duckling hatches fast, but–it’s forever weakened by not have had to fight its way out. And it dies young.

By taking its passage into her own hands, her control, the well-meaning woman essentially kills.

We can’t know what grace or gift will emerge for us as we endure suffering and the moment of our death. Nor, perhaps more importantly, do we know what gifts, what strengths, what blessing our suffering will give those who stand close beside us.

Many people believe of the late, now Saint, John Paul II, that of all the vital, vibrant years of his long papacy, which included staring down communism, the most powerful were those final ones in which he literally wasted away in front of our eyes from Parkinson’s. He allowed us to watch as his former athletic, globe-trotting body became a shell barely strong enough to contain his soul. Yet even and almost especially when he was unable to utter his blessing to the throngs gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday only a few days before his death, his very presence was a blessing to those he made himself visible to.

pope john paul 2 last days

He gave the world one example of death with dignity.

Kara Tippetts, a young mother of four who is dying of breast cancer, wrote an open letter to Maynard urging her in the most loving terms to reconsider her decision. She offers another such example.

I wonder: how can we know what our very-human desire to avoid pain will make us miss? How can we know what those who might witness our suffering will miss?

Death is terrifying. The prospect of pain and helplessness is perhaps more terrifying. But are we so fearful of the struggle, of the unknown, that we’ll do anything to avoid it? To avoid feeling it?

More importantly, have we so accustomed our children to the notion of a life without pain that we’ve taught them to do everything in their power to avoid it?

I wonder.

I wonder this also: have we so immersed ourselves in a society where activity and achievement are gods that we believe life without them isn’t worth living?

Surely JP II’s life was no less valuable, less courageous, when he was no longer able to “do” anything.

Surely the lives of our crippled, our elderly, our comatose, are no less valuable because they aren’t–in our society’s view–“producing?” Or “achieving?”

The prospect of life with the erosion of our faculties is terrifying. But most of us face that, either in the slow natural way of things called aging, or, as in the case of Maynard, rapidly, brutally, tragically.

Yet our lives, even those last gasps, are still precious. Our presence still matters. In the words of the old Maxwell House coffee commercial, “good to the last drop.”

Can we believe that? Do we? And–are we teaching our children to believe that?


2 thoughts on “To Be, or Not To Be

  1. Tom

    Thanks, Margaret, for this very thoughtful blog. I have wrestled with these questions similarly over the years. When I first got my diagnosis, ending my life before the suffering and anticipated horror of it all seemed like a very reasonable option. I felt reassured, knowing I could (thought I wasn’t really sure I could) end it if I had to. But the key verb phrase is “had to” . Because I could never be totally sure when that moment arrived. There were many moments of absolute fear and panic. Were those the moments when I “had to”? And I absolutely didn’t want to drag anyone into a protracted and terrifying illness along with me. Was that the reason I”d “have to”? And I really, mostly, just didn’t know if I had the strength to go on myself, regardless. I didn’t know I could live with a likely awful sickness and death, even if I didn’t know when it would all start (or end). Maybe especially because I couldn’t know.

    But here I am writing in this blog. So, surprise, I didn’t end it. Yet. And because I didn’t end it, I’ve gotten to watch my nephews and nieces grow up, develop wonderful relationships with a few of them, watch my parents age and face their fears. I’ve developed a career that is meaningful, and found a way, despite all my fears and anxieties, to have a place in the lives of many people–both personally and professionally. And so now, all that fear and dread I once felt is part of me, but it didn’t determine the outcome. Yet. I continue to say “yet” because I still hold on to the possibility in the same way that person with anxiety holds on to the unused lorazapam. It’s a psychic totem, I guess. A psychic life preserver, even as it allows me the possibility of ending my life. haha. There’s a character in The Moviegoer, Kate, I believe, who says as long as she can hold on to the freedom to end it all, she knows she won’t. Maybe some of us just do want that feeling of control. (Though I wonder what life would be like if we did indeed freely let go of that need for control, and be truly open to ALL of it…..)

    But as I’ve indicated, had my fears made the decision all those years ago, there’s all this life, full of all the usual highs and lows, good and bad relationships, books read, bad tv watched, bike rides enjoyed, that is now part of who I am. And I am part of the lives of all the people whom I love, and who love me. So that’s something.

    When it comes time for suffering I’ve imagined but have not yet encountered I can’t say for sure how I’ll react. I see my parents age with a grace I’d never imagined them capable of, and that is something. We don’t get to cherry pick our challenges, decide what kind of “suffering” we can learn the most from, and discard the rest. I never would have chosen my own diagnosis all those years ago, but what kind of life would it have been if it were all sunshine all the time? The drugged kind of life, I suspect. And even drugs ain’t always sunny….. Still no answers, but searching just the same. Thanks for your post M.


  2. Margaret Post author

    A wonderful reply, thank YOU, Tom. I have my own preference for you sticking around, as you recall, though our days of rocking together on our assisted living porch are uncomfortably closer each year…I like your reminder of the quote from the “Moviegoer.” . It hit me last night, maybe even as you were posting this, ‘how WOULD one know what it’s time?’ I mean, if you’re able to decide it’s time, you may still be enough of the earth to want to stay on it. Maybe. All to say, to me, it’s a deeply important topic, deserving of careful thoughts contributed by those on all sides, rather than angry polemic. Or that other option, never being discussed at all b/c suicide is such a ‘forbidden.’



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