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July 04, 2008

Life and Death Choices

Last week a healthy 72-year-old German woman was aided in her wish to end her life because she didn't want to envision the prospect of her future and living in a nursing home.

She was aided by a doctor who then filmed her last moments and went on to call a press conference and publicize snippets of her death so as to prove the point that assisted suicide (which is not illegal in Germany) is a personal right and a matter of enabling people the right to choose, with dignity, the timing of their own death.

As one commentor on CBC.ca said, I think this is more a statement about what it's like in our society to be old and the appalling state of many nursing homes than it is about the right to choose to die at your own hand.

Under what circumstances is it okay for someone to choose to end their own life? If you're like most people, it's hard to get your head around this question.

Many of us were born by accident. We didn't choose to be here. Not even our parents consciously chose for us to be here but here we are. And, most of the time, I'm very grateful for that. So, if we consciously make the choice not to be here at some point, should that be illegal? And even if it is illegal, so what?

Someone I loved committed suicide. I now view, in hindsight, what he chose to do as a selfish and cowardly act. Choosing to change his life and finding a way would have been so much more difficult. I know how much pain his choice caused me and I know how much pain it caused his best friends. What I will never understand is why he couldn't change; why he felt that his preferred option was to check out by his own hand.

For years afterwards my thinking flipflopped about whether he had the right to make this choice and I had no right to be angry with him or whether he was the most selfish, cowardly person on the planet. Or, was he brave? Was it a courageous choice? I didn't know then and I will never know because it would just be my judgment, not based on what it was like to be living the experience of his reality as he experienced it.

A year before this man I loved committed suicide, a friend who had been the captain of my high school basketball team which I played on for five years committed suicide. She hung herself in her basement. She had three very young daughters. Prior to her doing it, I believe she had just been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and had been having severe fluctuations between mania and depression as her psychiatrists tried to figure out what medication in which dosages might work. She was not hospitalized.

Unfortunately, her parents found her because they were so worried about her they were coming to her house on a daily basis to be with her. She was in her right mind enough to know that she must do the act after her husband left for work and before her parents arrived. At least that way her baby wouldn't be alone too long. It was tragic. She had so much to live for through having given life to her daughters. The pain she must have been in unimaginable. Given how she did it, one has to assume she'd been planning it for a while. Or was it a spontaneous decision from a mind whose ability to make reasonable decisions, had been temporarily hi-jacked.

I have often wondered about her daughters now who would be in their early to mid teens and wonder how that one choice by their mother must have changed the course of their own lives and would impact their intimate relationships for the rest of their lives, consciously and unconsciously.

My mother didn't commit suicide but she did choose to end her life by exercising her right to refuse any more dialysis. I remember thinking that it was surprising to me that doctors allowed that. Sure she was 83 years old. She had been sick. Her quality of life had not been good for about a year with only the prospect of it getting worse. But, I remember thinking to myself at the time, how is this different than assisted suicide all the while I understood why she would make the choice and how it was the right time for her.

I remember being surprised that doctors could actually let a patient make the choice not to continue treatment when treatment was possible. I'm not sure now why that surprised me since people with terminal illness must make that choice somewhere in the world every day.

Is life always sacred or is it only as sacred as the person whose life it is, believes it is?

1 comment:

Ben Anderson said...

In my mind, there are two separate issues here.

Committing suicide is indeed the act of a selfish, cowardly and weak individual. One may think at times it is the only way out, (someone with severe emotional [depression, anxiety, insomnia] and/or physical problems), but a strong person perseveres, with determination and discipline, until a solution is worked out.

Life is painful, and life is joyful and beautiful. Change is difficult, at times seemingly impossible, but it can be accomplished with much hard work, daily and consistently. All things work for good.

Lastly, I believe people with terminal illnesses, where the quality of life keeps getting worse, who take medication only to prolong their life, (where there is no proven cure) should be allowed the choice to "check out" if they so desire.