It is the cusp of the Day of the Dead and I am seized with the story of Brittany Maynard. End of life and beyond is my bailiwick these days and since my word of the year is courage, I can think of no better way to examine the word than to reflect on this young woman's bravery and the kind of courage it takes for a person so full of life to choose death over extended suffering.
Brittany is 29 years old and is facing only a few months left to live
her life. She has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain
cancer that will undeniably render her into a reality of unfathomable pain
and suffering. She has uprooted her life and moved her family to Oregon to take
advantage of the death with dignity law there. For Brittany it is
important that she do everything possible to avoid the inevitable throws
of suffering her diagnosis promises.
Her journey is notable and a great gift to us all in that she has allowed us to witness her process as she and her family come to grips with her final exit. Her first video explaining her intentions can be viewed here. In utilizing the choice to alleviate the suffering of a terminal and painful diagnosis, she is teaching us what to expect with these laws in place. There are a faction of people, most notably those who believe that human suffering is their God's will and should not be overridden in any way, that refer to this act of compassion as "suicide". I can see how those who have never sat with a loved one and watched them writhe in pain would not understand how death with dignity could be sanctioned. I suspect they want respect their religious icons who have suffered for them and uphold their dogma, which is their right. Physician Assisted dying is not suicide, however. Some deaths are suicide; some deaths are dignified and within the realms of compassionate caring. There is a huge difference that some people just will not allow themselves to consider. What is good about this law is that it can be safely and conscientiously applied to those who want and need it and ignored by those who choose to put their fate into the hands of their religion.
Heroically Brittany is taking her steps one at at time and using her right to change her mind. She continues to keep us all up on her thoughts on this as can be viewed here. She anticipated leaving this world on November 2nd and even though she is declining, she is still finding value in each day and has opted to wait until she feels she has actually crossed that quality of life threshold. There is great heart in this young woman. A strength most of us could only dream of aspiring to.
I can't help thinking about Robin Williams while I reflect on Brittany's story. I was really shaken by Robin's death in August. Recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and battling with depression, he took his life in a most unfortunate manner. He deserved much better for all the gifts he shared with us over the course of his career. It is not hard to imagine our having Robin around longer had he had a death with dignity option at his disposal in the state he lived in . How many others, I wonder, go flailing helplessly into the transition from life to death alone and in pain with no allowance for relief?
I also reflect on Gillian Bennett's decision to end her suffering also in August. She faced an unavoidable debilitating fate with dementia. She choose a time before her disease progressed to a point where she could not remember her plan and left a letter to us all regarding her decision here. She left an amazing legacy in her courage to follow through with what she felt was right for herself and those she loved.
I'm not a religious woman but I recognize spirit and I believe with all my heart and soul that it is our work in this world to alleviate the suffering of our fellow beings. There is nothing more important than living fully in the moment as many terminally ill persons have attested to. It is a tough bit of business to look death in the eye while your heart still thrashes in your chest and gravity still pulls you along stubbornly from the center of the earth. People should not be denied love in these hours simply because we are not brave enough as a culture to stand next to them as they look into the abyss. With all my heart I seek the courage to not look away and to be there to support those who know their time has come. My day will come too - as will yours - and I want it to be a good day at the end of a good life.