My Facebook feed is filling up with likes for a CNN story about a woman with terminal brain cancer who has chosen to “die with dignity.” She has set a date to take a prescription that will end her life before the cancer can.
Her story is touching. She is newly married, she loves to travel, she wants a family. All of these have been cut short by cancer, along with every other dream she had for her life. It’s the cruelest of blows.
But she is fighting back. Not only is she getting the upper hand on death by choosing her own date to die, she’s also fighting for every American to have this right. Right now only five states have Death with Dignity laws allowing doctors to prescribe life-ending meds for the terminally ill. She wants every state to have similar laws.
I have to admire her for using the little time she has left to spread a message she believes will help others.
But I don’t agree with her.
I spent ten months watching my aunt die of ovarian cancer. Here’s what I know about that kind of death: there is no dignity in it. None.
The hair and appetite loss were nothing compared to the pain no meds could soothe. I spent days with her where she spoke broken words through gritted teeth, fighting to sit upright. Her once round body morphed into a skeleton with loose flesh and dry, scaly chemo hands. Thoughts escaped her like wind-blown dandelion fluff. Always within reach, but never close enough to grasp.
Toward the end, she spent as many days in the hospital as out of it, until finally, she came home to die. I went to visit her on one of those last days before hospice came; a day when she writhed in pain and clenched my hand and her sister’s hand, waiting for the searing in her nerves to stop. To hold her hand or rub her arm only caused more pain. Even to touch her hurt. Three of us had to help her to the bathroom, a ten second walk that stretched to ten minutes.
That was the worst day. But even then, she managed to smile when I said something funny.
I went back a few days later. Hospice had come, morphine was being administered, and a hospital bed occupied a corner of the family room. After the pain she’d been in the last time I’d seen her, I expected to see her in bed. Instead, she was sitting on the couch looking more alive than she’d been in weeks. Looking almost alive enough to cut through the air of waiting that hung heavy in the room. Waiting for someone to die is as painful as watching it.
She couldn’t talk. The level of morphine it took to keep her comfortable also kept her too high to communicate rationally. She waved me over and held out her small, frail hands. I don’t remember the color–orange or pink–but her fingernails were painted. Her fingernails were always painted.
I took her hands and she pulled herself up. I thought she wanted help somewhere, but instead she pulled me into her arms. I could feel every vertebrae in her back and there was no cushion left on her shoulders, but there was strength in that embrace.
And every word her heart held that her mouth couldn’t say.
Let’s be honest, suffering and pain suck. No one wants it. Not for ourselves, and especially not for our loved ones. But what would life be without it? What happens when we, as a people, decide life is only worthwhile if we can avoid suffering rather than learn from it.
I’m a firm believer in the value of paradoxes. Without pain, how do we know pleasure? Without evil, how can there be good? Without doubt, is there any need for faith?
And without suffering, how do we learn compassion?
How did Mother Theresa become Mother Theresa? How did she develop the kind of compassion it took for her to spend her life ministering to others? She surrounded herself with suffering. She didn’t sit in a church talking about what to do for the sick, the poor, the destitute, the dying. She surrounded herself with them.
We don’t have to be Mother Theresa to learn compassion, and I’m not advocating for unnecessary suffering. But I worry about the implications of making dignity the most important part of death. I worry about what lessons we miss learning if we’re not willing to see the journey to death all the way through–when we cut it short before it gets too hard. Determining a date to die is a lot easier than determining whether we’re finished doing all the good we may do.
If my aunt had cut her journey short–cut it off before she needed hospice or before she became a “burden” to her loved ones, I would have missed the greatest lessons she had to teach me. I can feel greater sympathy for this young woman and her family because I know what lies ahead for her and them. I haven’t suffered the physical pain, but I know the heartache. I’ve felt that. I still feel it. And I’m a better person because of it. But it took the hardest part of her journey to teach me those things.
My aunt’s death was long. It was painful. It broke my heart. But, oh, how grateful I am that I got to take that walk with her.