On Saturday, with the help of doctors, and with her family near, Brittany Maynard took her life. She was battling a form of brain cancer that was likely going to end her life in just a few months, so she and her family moved to Oregon so she could take advantage of the state’s Death with Dignity Act.
I’ll be honest – I’m not sure what I think about it. On one hand, I have a hard time with the idea that it’s just up to God whether we live or die, because most of us accept medical intervention for illnesses. I would have almost certainly died this summer if not for medical help with my blood pressure. Did I interfere with God’s plan because I accepted medicine that prolonged my life? I certainly don’t believe that, so the idea that God is the only one who gets to determine when we die doesn’t sit all that well with me. I
I think a lot about my mom in this case, because I watched her struggle with ALS. She never, to my knowledge, considered suicide, assisted or otherwise, in her situation. She chose limited interventions, which most certainly allowed the disease to take her sooner than it may have otherwise, but I don’t believe at any point she considered taking her own life.
Almost exactly 24 hours before she died, mom had about an hour of lucidity. She had been non-responsive for most of that day and I think we all feared that we would not have any more opportunities to tell her that we loved her when we could know that she would hear us. But around 7pm on February 6th, she awoke one last time and we were able to communicate with her and she with us. She looked each of us who were at her bedside as we told her that we loved her and that we all wanted her to experience the peace that was waiting for her. It was a beautiful moment and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to experience that last brief encounter with her.
But what if that had come a few months earlier when she started to deteriorate quickly? What if, instead of gathering around a hospice bed, we had gathered around her bed at home? What if she still had her voice and had been able to tell us aloud that she loved us? What if we could have hugged her and had her hug back?
I don’t know. Maybe if she had gone that route, she would have missed knowing that her oldest granddaughter made the All-State band. Perhaps I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to sit at our family piano and play Christmas carols for her. She would have had fewer kisses from my dad.
And of course, there are things that we may have missed if she had chosen a more aggressive treatment plan. She may have been alive when Rich and I married. She may have been alive when we went through the loss of our son. She may have seen the outpouring of support for those with ALS with the ice bucket challenge.
There were losses that happened because she chose not to end her life. There were losses that would have occurred if she had made different choices. We can’t know what any of those are, but we can know one thing.
Life has loss.
And ultimately, I think that’s the most frightening part of Brittany Maynard’s choice. It reminds us that any choice we make will lead to some kind of loss. Every yes we make is a no to something else. The benefits of some no’s are more obvious than others, but every decision carries with it some small loss. And in a culture that is afraid of death and loss, it can be easier to examine Brittany Maynard’s decision than it is to examine the losses that our own choices have made. It’s easier to talk about the rightness or wrongness of the way that Brittany Maynard died than it is to talk about death itself.
But our fears don’t stop losses from happening. Our discomfort doesn’t eliminate grief. Hiding from loss, death, and grief doesn’t make them go away. What it does is allow us to miss our on opportunities to mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep. It creates barriers that keep us from better loving those who are hurting.
I don’t know how to determine what is the best way for life to end. I do know that the best way to live life is to live it in full community. We have that when we embrace not only life, but loss.