I have been thinking a lot about Brittany Maynard. She’s been on my mind ever since I heard her tragic story, because it was released to the media just after my father died of cancer. Other than Robin Williams, I’ve never felt grief this big for someone I didn’t know personally.
I think it’s because I have an idea of where her family is emotionally right now (but only an idea). My pain is still fresh and raw, and that’s without having my grief under a national spotlight.
Brittany’s story matters to me because, earlier this summer, Dad considered making the same choice that she did. He didn’t, though. His reasoning was that he wanted to engage with friends and family for as long as he could. He didn’t want to lose any more days of consciousness, and I respect him for that.
But I respect Brittany’s decision, too. I know it was not made lightly. I also know that, for those who say it’s impossible to define a “quality of life,” pain DOES impact your ability to live well. I remember all too clearly the night Dad forgot to take his pain medication: it’s a night I hope I can forget. A few days later, over brunch, he described what it was like: how it robbed him of the ability to think of anything else, because the agony completely took him over.
I am fortunate to have never experienced that kind of physical pain; I only know emotional agony. I understand now that many depressed people don’t really want to die; suicide is just a means to get the pain to stop. If they could live depression-free, they would – just as Brittany would have loved to continue living if not for her fatal diagnosis.
I understand both sides of this ethical conundrum. Really, I do. It wasn’t that long ago I believed euthanasia was wrong all the time, in every scenario. But today, I don’t consider Brittany’s final act to be suicide. I don’t know how to define “dying with dignity,” but if that was how she defined it, how can I judge? I haven’t been in her place.
In my dad’s case, he died with dignity by living into the first few days of autumn. The doctors predicted he wouldn’t make it through the end of summer, so it makes me smile that Dad had his final moment of “Fuck you” to the disease by surviving most of September. He always had a strong, optimistic spirit, which everyone who knew him believes kept him alive for so long. In that way, the cancer did not win. That was how he died with dignity.
To paraphrase John Green, we don’t have a say in whether or not we suffer. But we do have a say in how we suffer. I still have very mixed feelings about euthanasia, but if we are unwilling to approach this subject with empathy, we will only cause more pain to those who are left behind. The issue isn’t just about us.
My question for people on both sides of the issue is this: if there is such a thing as dying with dignity, what does it mean to die without dignity? Or can we define the act of death in any special way, since it is a fate that all of us will meet eventually, whether we want to or not? How do some do it “better” than others?