Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Assisted Dying

Considering the kind of work I do, I feel the need to acknowledge the passing, a week ago, of a young woman named Brittany Maynard, years younger than myself, diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and facing a death sentence. She went public about her disease and her decision to move to Oregon, where assisted death is legal, so that she could end her life on her own terms. It was courageous of her to talk about something we don’t talk about. It was a topic that seemed to trigger a lot of people’s personal opinions about her choice. And it revived an old conversation in the medical field about death.
A friend of mine tells a story about how she pulled to the side of the road once where a man had hit a deer. It was suffering but still alive, dying slowly. And she told me that as women, our bodies know how to gift birth. And we also have the responsibility to know when to gift death. She knelt by the deer and spoke lowly to it before slitting it’s femoral artery with a knife. It was dead in seconds.
And I think about that story. She didn’t kill a deer that might otherwise have lived. She gifted a being dying a painful death a kindness.
What if our medical field was like my friend? Not doctors deciding that patients are done with their lives and a drain on resources, which is where science fiction always jumps to. I’m talking about doctors who give their terminal patients all the options for care and treatment, including assisted death. They can always go get a second opinion.
The problem is that when we say assisted death, people hear assisted suicide. People hear “unwarranted euthanasia”. That is fear and grief talking. Not rationality. There will always be people who abuse a system. But if we assume that everyone is going to, we don’t leave room for the system to breathe and work.
I get the fear and grief. I have lost many to actual suicide. As a culture, the thought of the loss of someone we love is hard enough. They thought that they might choose to leave us, to hurt us through that loss is unbearable. And that is the filter most people discuss assisted death through.
I can set aside the grief and rage I have for those who I loved who have taken their own lives. I can see how the choice they made was their own choice and I had no right to expect them to suffer just for the selfish desire, on my part, to see them once in a while. Though I think my life would be the better for having had them in it, I am aware that I wasn’t going to make their lives better. I wasn’t going to be the one to shepherd them through their dark places.
It is that compassion that opened my eyes that there may be people who make that choice out of a practical place. For instance, when pain makes a terminal patient wish for a swifter death, we cannot brush it off as “the pain talking.” It is the pain talking. It is our loved ones telling us they are done.
If someone is considering ending things on their own terms if they find themselves with a terminal diagnosis, isn’t it more compassionate to offer them a medical end? Especially when they know the end will be painful and body-consuming, and the only measures available to them are to be kept comfortable through it. We hear doctors say that they are meant to save lives, not take them. And I believe that each patient loss weighs heavily on them. But when a patient is going to be lost anyway, what does it matter if it comes a month earlier than it would have? Even six months?
Our bodies are our sacred temples. How we care for them shows how we value our lives. What we do with them at the end does, too.
Maybe it’s easier to put it this way. If it was you, and you had been fighting, and your doctor finally came to you and said there was nothing more they could do, what would you want to hear?  That you could still have unknown weeks or months with the aid of pain medication? That you had the choice to decide when you wanted to end it without having to resort to suicide? Wouldn’t it be a better world if you were given both?

Blessings to Brittany Maynard, that she is free from pain. Blessings to her family in their time of grief and healing. Blessings to all those in need. May we found our ways to compassion, for the dead, the dying, and the living.

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