So what does it mean to “die with dignity”?

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?


7 thoughts on “So what does it mean to “die with dignity”?

  1. Pingback: How we live matters more than how we die | Sarahbeth Caplin | Author & Blogger

  2. Reblogged this on Kevin Card and commented:
    An insightful and touching piece, also one that raises a good question. Personally, I sympathize with people like Maynard rather than just criticize their decision. Also, in my mind to “die with dignity” is to accept death without fear after you feel you have lived the way you wanted to live your life.


    • Thanks for reblogging! I like that definition, but I do think it’s natural to have some fears or regrets about your life choices. Hopefully those are outweighed by all the good choices and personal achievements.


      • Hey, no problem! By the way, I hope your father is at peace now. I also agree it’s perfectly natural to feel fear and other negative emotions over death. I certainly fear death, and probably will for a long time. lol


  3. I’m reblogging this post. And to give my two cents, there’s a lot of philosophy about this sort of thing; but in my mind to die with dignity is to be able to accept death since in a way that you no longer fear it. I struggle with situational depression everyday, and I’ve struggled with thoughts of suicide in the past when tragic events in my life occurred. Hell, I’ve even had friends who committed suicide. I decided against ending my life since I still want to accomplish my dream of telling my life story and sharing my music with the world (and many other things to live for). On the flip side, I understand why Maynard made her choice. I don’t openly endorse euthanasia, but I think people should still have the freedom to chose their own fate if they are in extreme agony. I feel sympathy towards (not anger) towards Brittany Maynard and Robin Williams. I just wish more people would try to take a walk in the other person’s shoes before they just label them a “coward” or “selfish” for making such a major decision. Empathy’s a trait I wish more people in this world could have.

    Liked by 1 person

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