2 September 2009: Dying with dignity should be a right

Dying with dignity should be a right

Teddy Kennedy died last week. While memorials of his life and testimonials to his legacy roll in, what is of note here is neither his life nor the reason he died — glio-blastima, a fast-spreading brain tumor — but how he died: surrounded by love and with dignity.

Of all the passion-stirring aspects and events of our lives, dying is the one that elicits the most horrid emotions, dark images, and despair. The reason is we know nothing more than it is “final.” Is death oblivion, a permanent end to life? Is it a transition from this world of nature to heaven, the Elysian Fields, or Valhalla? Is it neither?

Accordingly, we process dying in two ways, both of which omit reason: our mythology — where do we go, if at all, when we die — and our emotions.

We stand in awe of those who face death fearlessly — the soldier in battle; the hero who risks and at times loses his/her life to save another; the individual who, having fought the light with a life-threatening disease — and in admiration of those who serenely accept and perhaps welcome it simply due to being old and tired.

Most will not experience what the soldier in battle faces or find themselves putting their personal safety in peril to save another. Some will be blessed with a peaceful death without enduring tremendous suffering. But the rest, even those younger, will go to their end as a consequence of a life-ending disease.

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie-Mellon professor who gave and then penned his final lecture in 2008, personifies the heroic individual, accepting of his fate, the reality of his imminent passing in a dignified and stoic manner. Professor Pausch was 47.

His and others’ stories are beautiful and inspiring, but no sooner we begin to understand and be comforted by the idea that death need not be hideous, we get broadsided with visions of the grim reaper, the “ghostly figure, scythe in hand,” whom columnist Charles Krauthammer sees standing in the room of the individual nearing his/her life’s end, and death panels complete with obvious allusions to the Holocaust.

Former Gov. Dick Lamm, in context of the ability of the earth to sustain an ever-burgeoning — now 7 billion — population, once proclaimed “we have a duty to die” for which he got soundly chastised and jeered. Lamm is right, of course: We are obsessed beyond natural desire to continue life that has run its course and for which there is little or no hope of sustaining. Case in point: Terri Schiavo, the iconic personification of the lingering, brain-dead individual seared into our cultural memory.

A Buddhist might explain fear of death as attachment, and a pop psychologist — or a real one — might see it as obsession, a self-centered belief that one life is of greater value than those of fellow earthlings.

When close friends dealing with a life-threatening condition do not have immediate or supportive family nearby or at all, one can find him/herself unexpectedly in the role of primary or secondary caregiver. Over the past two years, that was the case for me as I found myself in a close secondary role for two friends with cancer and for their spouses who, I came to understand, also had powerful needs. I watched them courageously and undauntedly swing at every nasty curveball life threw at them. I can say it was inspiring — and it was to watch them come to terms with their mortality as I fretted about trivial aspects of my life — but to do so somehow seems to reduce what they endured.

As Teddy Kennedy argued about health care and would likely agree about this, it is a fundamental human right to die with dignity. And there is nothing dignified about a human connected to a machine with wires and tubes whose physical life is being artificially prolonged. “Pulling the plug,” literally or metaphorically, is a vulgar and dehumanized concept.

When I put my old dog to sleep, I held him while Dr. Jeff Norton administered the requisite drugs that allowed him to die peacefully pain free. Since that personal experience, I attest to the notion we treat our pets with more human dignity than we do our fellow human beings.

Artificially prolonging life past its time — again, think Terri Schiavo — is not only the height of arrogance and selfishness, but it is also a moral depravity that I, if I believed in a Cosmic Unitary Executive, would argue is defiance of the will of God.

Next week: Anecdotes and head scratching about why death and end-of-life discussions and plans are to be feared.

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