Death With Dignity

The other night I forced myself to sit down and watch a documentary I had recorded.

How to Die in Oregon.

It’s the story about people who have elected to use the “Death With Dignity” Act in Oregon, which allows them to take a prescription to end their life when they have been diagnosed with a terminal/life-limiting illness. It’s also the story of the movement to successfully pass the same law in the state of Washington. It’s about the volunteers from Compassion and Choices, who offer support and education about options at the end of life.

I knew it would move me for obvious reasons. And even though I had anticipated the broadcast on HBO since early this spring, I could only now bring myself to bear witness.

Not because I have a problem with the law. In fact, it’s just the opposite. I think it is empowering and beautiful to have the choice to peacefully slip away before the pain and suffering and delirium set in. I think rather than close doors, this option actually creates opportunities to choose life.

I know it sounds like a contradiction that choosing to end your life means choosing life. But if you’re not afraid of the suffering, if you know the end result will be quietly falling asleep, surrounded by your loved ones, then I think it frees you to live the life you have more fully. Rather than fearing what’s around the corner, you can celebrate relationships, plan trips, cross things off your bucket list, get your affairs in order…

I sometimes wonder whether my father would have chosen this option if he had it. I honestly don’t know. And there’s no way we would have pressured or pushed the issue. But he would have had the freedom to go to a pharmacy and tuck the pills away somewhere. He would have had the freedom to say “Enough is enough” and because he would have made the choice, he would have had the time and space to say goodbye on his own terms. Rather than lie in a hospital bed in my parents’ bedroom, delirious from debilitating pain and fear, not ready to let go because none of us saw it coming. Even though we all knew it would come someday.

The reason it was so hard to sit down and watch was because it made the abstract concrete again. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy advocating for improved palliative and hospice care since I began nursing school. I’ve done it in honor of my own family. But it’s been advocacy and education at a more cerebral level, supported by the wisdom of personal experience. Watching the film, I relived the experience in a raw, guttural, physical space.

It wasn’t about philosophy and politics anymore. It was about people. It was about my Dad.

Where do you stand on the idea of a Death with Dignity Act in your state? Do you think it’s helpful or harmful to people with terminal illness? *I know this issue can get emotional, so please refrain from personal or political attacks…just speak from your heart*

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