We can’t choose how and when we are born, and to a large extent, as children, we cannot control our environment, where we live, and what we do. Our parents, teachers, pastors, scout leaders dictate terms.
But with maturity, comes autonomy– the right, within the confines of our financial and moral constraints, to decide how to live our lives. How curious, then, that society for so long has denied us the right to choose how we exit life.
We all know that death awaits us– we can’t predict when, we can’t know how. We can prepare for it, of course, by preparing a will, filling out various forms, taking out life insurance. But we never know for sure that today might not be our last day on earth.
Now imagine, if you will, that you learn that you have contracted a fatal, irreversible illness. Surgery is not an option; drugs do not exist to cure the encroaching disease, and the best that can be hoped for is you will eke out something resembling a compromised existence for a period of months. Keep in mind, that every day things will get worse– you will be less continent, more fatigued, in greater pain, less autonomous, more dependent, less coherent. As bad as today is as you struggle to get through the hours of agony, tomorrow is going to be worse
Every day your family and friends make the pilgrimage to your bedside to exchange loving inanities, tastefully avoiding the elephant in the room. You do not enjoy people seeing you so diminished, so unlike the way you used to be. It takes a huge toll on them to visit daily and you are getting no joy out of life. The fact that the situation is medically hopeless and predictable makes the wait frustrating and counterproductive.
At some point, you decide: this is not what I want. I am in a sterile hospital room, surrounded most hours of the day by well-meaning medical staff, interrupted by the brief hours when I have visitors. Every day, it takes more and more of an effort just to survive for less and less reward. I would like to just end it. There is nothing more on Earth left for me to do before I return to see my Maker, who is calling me, who despite my prayers, has settled on my fate. I want simply to say good-bye and let go.
Now ask yourself: could this happen to you or to someone you care about. Would you want that painful decision to rest not with you and your family but rather with a state legislature that knows nothing about you. Shouldn’t you be able to ask your doctor to facilitate a painless, quick exit so that you might plan the date and time of your death, under conditions under your control: perhaps at home, perhaps surrounded by your loved ones, perhaps with your favorite soothing music on a day of your choosing. Your pastor or priest might object that you are better off suffering until the end, despite the pain, despite the embarrassment, despite the dependences, but should he be able to veto your decision. Listen to him, of course, but don’t be forced to give up your personal plans for your exit because of his beliefs, not yours.
Ed Tiryakian, J.D., MBA, founded Dying Right NC in 2015 and is its Executive Director. He previously worked in international banking in Asia before retiring to his native NC.He believes End of Life issues are one of society’s most pressing challenges as we all live longer and the medicalization of the dying process continues to conflict with the individual’s right to choose his or her end.