This month’s column is about death. Feel like skipping to the next column? It’s understandable. We’re uncomfortable with the subject, which is too bad. If we spoke more openly and realistically about death, our society might reject the misconceptions and fantasies that cause needless suffering, suffering that could impact any of us in the end.
Two weeks ago, in Oregon, Brittany Maynard, 29, legally took her life to avoid the suffering typical of death by her form of terminal brain cancer. I felt sad when I read this but also impressed by Maynard’s strength and determination. As her self-imposed deadline of November 1 had approached, I’d wondered if she’d lose her nerve. After all, the presence of mind to take your own life means you have the presence of mind to treasure just one more day.
On Nov. 6, the Coloradoan told the story of terminal patient and Denver resident Robert Mitton, who wished that his home state gave him the option of avoiding end-of-life suffering. No article I’ve read better captures the tragic divide between those who support legally assisted suicide and those who oppose it.
Mitton spoke of brutal reality: “I don’t want to go through the very last throes of swelling up and drowning in my own blood. It is supposed to be a very ugly death when your aortic heart valve finally goes.”
For the opposing viewpoint, the article quoted Dr. Alan Rastrelli, a Catholic deacon who practices palliative medicine. “…you don’t relieve suffering by ending the sufferer,” said Dr. Rastrelli. “We honor (your life) as your body naturally starts to slow down and shut down.” Rastrelli then commented that the end of life should be spent with friends and family, getting closure.
Sounds pretty idyllic, like death in the movies. We don’t like to talk about death, and if we have to watch it on the big screen, we prefer it pleasant. Typically, the dying person reclines on a cascade of pillows as a look of eternal peace — that must be the “closure” — appears on the face like a ray of sunshine. Any last words are worthy of etching in stone.
What about gasping, thrashing, dementia and failure of bodily functions? These don’t appear in Dr. Rastrelli’s fairytale where death comes “naturally,” and as we all know from aromatherapy, acupuncture, and arsenic, anything natural is automatically better. Mother Nature — or whichever overlord winds the steady clock of life — has a plan, and don’t mess with it. To the deacon, that clock ticks from birth onward and, when the time is right, simply stops ticking. Tick, tick, tick… peace — as quiet and natural as closing one’s eyes.
What Maynard knew and Mitton knows is that Mother Nature can be heartless. She doesn’t care whether your final days are spent in quiet reflection or “agonal respiration,” the medical term for the wild-eyed tortured panic of someone unable to breathe. She doesn’t care if, from your deathbed, you look lovingly into your family’s eyes, or see no one but unwelcome strangers because dementia has stolen all recognition. She doesn’t care whether you sigh your last breath or scream it.
Five states allow physician-assisted suicide, with New Mexico the latest just this year. Colorado should be number six.