I've had lots of thoughts running through my head since I learned of Jack Kevorkian's death this morning. In case you don't know, he is the assisted suicide advocate, who came to prominence in the mid-1990s by helping people kill themselves. He went to prison for his work and was released recently because he was dying.
When Dr. Death was at the height of his work, I was in my late teens, early twenties, so of course I knew it all and every opinion I had was strong and absolute. And I totally supported the idea of assisted suicide. I felt if someone was in desperate pain without any relief, why should they be forced to live. Wasn't that cruel? (And no, I didn't bother to know exactly who Dr. Death was helping or why they wanted to die. I believed it was right for the situation I listed.)
Then things changed. My sophomore year of college, my paternal grandfather was dying. He wanted it over quickly. We didn't call Dr. Death (even though he lived and worked right by us). Instead, my grandfather was placed on hospice. He didn't stay on hospice long and died within a day or two. But that was enough to expose me to a different idea--hospice.
Shortly thereafter, my father left his position as a home care nurse to help start a hospice at the hospital where he has worked for years and years. Through him, I truly learned what hospice was all about. Hospice is a way to help dying patients and their families feel as comfortable as possible at the end. They alleviate pain, keep the patient in their homes (where possible), bring in social workers and chaplains to work through grief issues and letting go, and provide families tools to navigate the end of life. Hospice will not take heroic measures to save lives because it is set up to help people let go when they have only a couple of months left to live. Some people do so remarkably well under hospice care that they have to be removed because their prognosis improves so much. The philosophy behind hospice and they way in which it is carried out helps the entire family as long as they commit to it. It can be difficult to agree to stop taking measures to extend a loved one's life, so commitment is difficult.
Around the same time that my dad was starting up this hospice, I took a philosophy course on death and dying. It made me seriously reconsider my opinions and thoughts. It made me question why I believed what I did. And it was at time that I realized I didn't know what to believe. I thought hospice was the better choice for most people, but I still believed there must be some situations that assisted suicide would be better.
Then I grew up. Life happened. I had a family member shot himself in the head in his garage for his wife to find because he no longer wanted to live with brain cancer. His wife will now have the vision of her dead husband, lying in a pool of blood, burned into her memory for the rest of her life. Would it have been better if there was a way for him to medically kill himself? I'm not sure. I don't know the process they went through to address his illness. I don't know if they sought help in coping. I presume that he did not seek counseling simply because of who he was. As an adult, I can see that learning to cope with illness and dying would probably have helped them all, rather than thinking suicide was the only answer.
The weekend my son was born, both of my grandmothers had heart attacks. My maternal grandmother's heart attack was massive and she was placed on hospice the day my son was born. She died a week later, but in that week on hospice, all of her children were able to see her and say goodbye. They needed that process and the extra help that comes with hospice.
Today, I no longer believe in assisted suicide at all. I now know that there are alternatives and more than anything, I can totally see how assisted suicide may be abused when someone is not mentally stable due to their illness.
My daughter has suffered pain her entire life. She knows no different, yet she is happy and lives life. This is all because of her outlook on life. Granted, she is a small child, but she has endured more than most people will ever face in their lives and she is happy. I believe counseling and learning to cope are more important for the dying than ending it all at your own hands, which hurts your loved ones. We should all learn from my daughter. If she can live a happy life through all that she endures, then we can learn to do so too. When our time comes, we can know we tried our best to live a good life for us and our loved ones and should continue to do so by seeking help in addressing our end, so that it is not ended in despair.
One caveat. I've never been faced with the ultimate decision. And I hope I never have to choose to turn off a ventilator or stop heroic measures. I may change my mind if that days comes.