Boomer Opinion: Time for a change when we die

There are nations elsewhere in the world where people can legally and peacefully choose the time and place of their death. In the U.S., beginning with Washington and Oregon and now in a handful of other states too, “right to die” movements have changed the law, but not in most of the country. In this Boomer Opinion piece, Emily Gaffney of Marblehead, Massachusetts, argues that it ought to take hold everywhere because, as she sees it, it’s win-win.

Not all over-the-fence conversations are created equal.

Take for example the one I had recently with Kay, my part-time neighbor from Holland with whom I share an inordinate number of random coincidences. Kay is a tad over 60, and I just turned 60. Kay’s birthday is June 25th and Mom’s birthday is June 25th. Kay had a 92-year-old mother, and I have a 92-year-old mother. Kay has grown-children-navigating-life, and I have grown-children-navigating-life. There is no shortage of conversation topics between Kay and me when we are both toiling in our gardens. We keep up.

Emily Gaffney

When Kay shared that her 92-year-old mother had recently passed, I couldn’t help but think of my own mother (our similarities being what they are and all). I’ve come to a point in my personal caregiving journey where the details of others parents’ deaths matter to me. Hearing their play-by-play accounts helps me anticipate what could happen to Mom, minimizing my chances of being surprised and/or unprepared. My hope is that by the time it happens, I will have heard it all.

Kay is an open woman with a sensitive heart. She understands that my interest in her mother’s passing is not borne from idle curiosity or a need for gossip. She understands that I seek to glean something useful and important to store in my mind for my own mother’s eventual end. So, thankfully, she shares.

The most important detail I heard in our conversation is one that will never apply (at least not legally) to Mom’s demise. Kay’s mother chose to die. Of sound mind and failing body, she informed her four daughters of her decision to end her life, and was able to ask them to be present and to be a part of her final moments. A brilliant end-of-life option that we just don’t have in most parts of the U.S.

Though I’m not sure to what end, I wanted– and needed– more detail. Kay’s mother’s death by her doctor’s hand sounded so normal… so compassionate… so reasonable… so civilized… so interesting. I did a quick moral and legal inventory around euthanasia and quickly dismissed the “life-is-precious” and “don’t-play-God” arguments that I’m sure have kept this practice largely at bay in the U.S.

Paradoxically, death by assisted suicide feels to me like a classic win/win for everyone. Kay’s mother was tired and physically weak. On this earth for almost a century, she’d lived a full and satisfying life. Of sound mind and with great dignity, she got to choose her moment and method. Surely, that’s a win.

Kay and her siblings were unquestionably sad, but also honored and grateful to be present for such an important and meaningful moment in their mother’s life. Kay described her “relief” at knowing that her mother’s suffering was over, that her final wishes were realized, and that there was no room for sibling misunderstanding or discord. I’d call this a win as well.

Perhaps it’s time for a change.

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31 Comments

  1. I have no fear of death. I have great fear of living horribly. Too many friends and acquaintances have died of various cancers, brain surgeries, amputations, who were told prior to treatment that they should be able to return to a normal lifestyle. Never happened. I am a very healthy 76. I have a stunningly beautiful wife of 66. I would like to live many more years with her and our children and grandchildren. I can only hope.
    I have arranged for my passing when the time comes. Not a suicide, an arrangement from a loving friend. I will not be housed in an assisted living center drooling out of the corner of my mouth singing BINGO in a wheelchair with others.

  2. Well-said! You are so right Emily. We will all die someday. Why not make it as compassionate and comfortable for all involved as possible? I believe Boomers will be the generation to correct the silly attitude we have the USA, as if death is an embarrassment or a personal failure on some level.

    1. I totally agree with people having the right to choose when they die. I don’t say this lightly. My younger brother was bed-ridden and in extreme pain for 13 years in a nursing suffering with Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease; it slowly destroyed his neuromuscular system. My brother begged to die every day until he finally did this year after waiting for his entire body to completely shut down. He was 62.

      1. I’m so sorry for your loss Carol. Thirteen years is an awfully long time for anyone to suffer. You’d think that a compassionate doctor (or nurse?) somewhere along the line could have helped your brother find peace sooner. I’m sure he’s found it now.

    2. *Kay* also said that the doctor comes to the house 3 times before he/she will actually administer the final ingredient… just to make sure. I imagine the recipient is pretty sure of their decision by then. Thanks for reading and commenting Laura!

  3. I very much agree with this heartfelt post. My Mother’s friend will be 102 years old next July, and is now in a nursing home. She had a wonderful life, and all she wants to do now is die. I don’t blame her, and I will determinedly never end up in an institution where the smell of bleach and cooking rattles the brain.

    There IS assisted suicide in Switzerland – a British husband took his wife who had suffered from MS for many years in acute pain, and she could finally pass with dignity and peace. He was arrested upon returning to England, but later released.
    The ‘right to lifers’ are clueless in this regard.

    1. According to Wikipedia…. “In the United States there are assisted dying laws restricted to terminally ill adults in Oregon, Montana, Washington, Vermont, Hawaii, California, Colorado and Washington D.C. The laws require that the patient’s attending physician certify mental competence.” Honestly, I thought it was just Oregon, and I’ve read numerous stories over the years about patients moving to Oregon for the sole purpose of dying with dignity. I imagine the laws vary state to state considerably.

      Thank you for your thought-full comment Suzanne.

  4. What a beautiful, passionate story. Thank you for sharing it Emily.

    Sadly, IMO it is mostly religious belief’s that keep the ‘right to die’ at bay. In some minds apparently, suffering greatly will bring people to God. {{sigh}} I too hope that the right to die becomes the norm. For those who wish to die with dignity when they choose, fine. For those who don’t wish to, fine also, but don’t take that right away from others. I was with my husband when he died after suffering greatly, and there was no dignity, or compassion — only pain and cruelty.

    1. That really breaks my heart Julie. I’m sorry for your loss, and also for the fact that you had to suffer with your husband. I like how you phrased this – let the sufferer choose, or NOT. It should be an individual decision. Like you, I’m not so sure suffering is the key to reaching God. 🙁

      Thank you for sharing Julie.

  5. I’ve never been able to wrap my head around allowing our pets their dignified end and refusing it with those humans we most love. I watched my Mom fade day-by-day over a period of many years. By her last three, she didn’t know anyone and could do nothing for herself and it was the most painful thing.

    1. Excellent point about the pets Diane. I’ve never thought of it in those terms. I’m sorry for your Mom’s experience. My Mom is 92 and regularly tells me she’s “done”… I wish I had more control over that for her.

      Thank you for reading and commenting Diane.

  6. Thank you, Emily, for your thoughtful and compassionate story. I’ve often thought, as Diane does, that we offer our animals more dignity than we do our loved ones. While those who choose to suffer in order to know God are welcome to do so, I hope the rest of us are allowed to choose another path and to leave this earth with dignity for wherever we may go.

  7. I agree with this wholeheartedly. Through my small business and volunteering for hospice, I have seen many people suffer. The excruciating physical and emotional pain that some endure at the end of their lives is devastating to witness. We treat our pets better than our parents when dying is often the most compassionate choice. We also spend how many millions (billions?) on extreme life preserving medical procedures, medications and care when in many cases the person’s time should be done here. There is much room for improvement, great piece.

    1. Thanks Collette. No doubt, you (amazing) hospice volunteers witness what true suffering can look like. You also touch on the *cost* of maintaining “life”. I imagine that pharma and the insurance industry are perfectly content with the status quo. Thanks for reading and sharing Collette.

  8. Such a wonderful piece, Emily. Though I know there are other big issues out there politically, I think this should be on the front burner of American law, and that all states should jump on board. It really seems the most humane thing to do, a no-brainer in my opinion. Who would vote in favor of seeing a loved one suffer???

    1. I couldn’t agree more Ronni! As a result of this post, I’ve received an interesting link to a website that may be of particular interest to those reading this thread. The site is called compassionandchoices.org, and it affords us all an opportunity to voice our concerns and opinions to the “right” people. Maybe we can make some change here… Thanks for commenting Ronni!

  9. Thank you for this honest article, I have for years, talked to my friends, family about this subject – shouldn’t it be my choice, to not suffer, to die with dignity? I call it my “pink juice” talk (pink juice is what they give to put animals “to sleep”)…at 68, healthy so far, I’m hopeful our generation will be kinder, smarter about this important life issue, than in the past.

    1. Interesting Victoria, about the “pink juice”… I’ve never heard that. But I have watched my vet come to my home and gently administer a sedative and a shot to my 18 year old cat who was dying of cancer. Heartbreaking to watch, but relief for both of us when it was over. Thanks for commenting Victoria.

  10. Compassion & Choices. Look them up. They are a fantastic organization changing the laws in states, one by one. Oregon, California. Colorado. Wall deserve and are entitled to this choice. ❤️

      1. There is a difference though between the laws California (where I live), etc., I believe you have to have a “terminal diagnosis” for assisted suicide to be considered. What you discussed about your friend Kay’s mother in Holland was a choice, based on her wish to die BEFORE she was “dying” of a terminal disease, or whatever was coming around the corner. There is a very interesting documentary about this subject “Mademoiselle and the Doctor” (I believe you can view it online if you search it out). Thank you again for your thoughtful words, definitely a subject boomers need to keep talking about.

        1. Thanks Victoria. I searched the film which has been removed for “free” viewings and now requires an assent from the filmmaker (totally reasonable!). I see it’s about an hour and a half long, so I’ve saved the link. The Comments and Reviews about the film raise many of the issues around Mdm. Ligot’s desires. I look forward to watching!

    1. Geege, I too am a fan of Compassion & Choices for all the work they do in promoting laws for compassionate help in dying. I’ve watched my mom, brother, sister and a nephew die of brain tumors. After trying everything to live, they each lost the fight and would have welcomed a compassionate option. Medical bills, pharmaceuticals, and loss of work for the patient and his care-giver spouse drove one family into bankruptcy. Add that fear to a dying person’s physical and emotional suffering and it becomes torture. I don’t know what decision I would make, but I know for certain I want the option. I hope all will look into Compassion & Choices at https://www.compassionandchoices.org

      1. Thank you for posting that Marlene.(I’ve shared the link on 50 Shades of Aging as Well). Sadly, it’s in the best interest of big pharma and the insurance companies to keep people alive as long as possible. In effect, for some of us, they regulate our death as well as our lives.

  11. I’ve read so many articles from physicians who are encouraging families whose loved ones are in the final stages of life to consider palliative care rather than continuing efforts to extend life in a hospital. It just seems the most compassionate choice when assisted suicide is not available. I think Britons and Europeans might have a more realistic approach to death while too many Americans have a long way to catch up. How many times do you hear someone say their loved one ‘died’, as opposed to ‘passed’?

    1. I’ve only been on the caregiving journey myself for about 8 years, but I’m hearing the word “palliative” more and more often. Maybe this will become a softer code word for “assisted suicide”. Thanks for reading and commenting Jeannette.

  12. Meanwhile all is not well in OR, WA, CO and
    CA where reports on assisted suicide are incomplete: How many self-administered as promised?
    A broken promise is missing in the CA report on assisted suicides?
    So after a year in CA how many self administered the poison as was promised when the concept was marketed? By omitting an ordinary witness all the flaunted safeguards are eviscerated and our choices are ignored and not honored allowing exploitation of us all.
    State Documents in Oregon indicate that 20% of their assisted suicide deaths could have been bullied by the corporate facilitators forcing the poison. I take exception to the push polls yes 60%, even the religious, favor the concept then 95% change to not-in-favor after they learn how easily the laws can be wrongly administered saying “I’m not for that”. Risking us all,all ages, to be exploited by predatory corporations and predatory new best friends or heirs.
    Read the language of the laws to decern the double speak, omissions and commissions to reveal the normalized, the exploited, the expended, the euthanized.
    Bradley Williams
    President MTaas org

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