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On Dying Well



While I thought I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.

Leonardo Da Vinci

It’s interesting how often my social events lately are ending with discussions about how we all want to die. I am speaking of my lady friends, and perhaps we are more interested in this than men. A recent news story suggests this. Ruddy Daggerwing (Marpesia petreus)

But back to my starting point. I am in a cohort in which many of us are seeing the health issues of the aged develop in ourselves or loved ones. A number of us are also observing the quality of life in parents approaching or exceeding the 100-year mark. Many of my friends are single and childless, which seems to put us more in charge of end-of-life plans than others. I like this, actually. I like being in charge, which is probably why I’m single.

I’m on the leading edge of the baby boom generation, which has been a power spot virtually since the moment we were born, immediately enriching diaper manufacturers. Perhaps our wishes in the matter of dying will transform tradition. This has become urgent in some minds because medical advances can turn the process into a very lengthy, undignified, and costly ordeal.

The story I referred to at the outset is about a ruling in New Mexico state court on Monday establishing the right of residents to obtain “aid in dying.” This is not definitive for the entire state, just Bernalillo County at the moment. The attorney general’s office is deciding whether it will appeal, and the New Mexico Conference of  Catholic Bishops has voiced its disappointment.

It’s interesting to see how prevalent the feminine voice is in this matter. The ruling was by a female judge, the case was brought by a woman who is terminally ill with cancer, one of her attorneys is a woman, an oncologist who was a plaintiff in the suit is a woman, the legal director of the supportive American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico is a woman, and so is the director of legal affairs for Compassion & Choices, which has embraced this cause.

So now New Mexico is the fifth state, along with Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Vermont to establish in some form the concept of “death with dignity.”

The representative (male) of the Conference of Catholic Bishops compared a dying patient’s termination of his or her life to a physician imposing the death penalty. I can imagine that writing the necessary prescription would be a weighty moment for any physician, and freighting it with that kind of language would make it a lot worse.

In fact the ethical issues confronting doctors lately are getting steadily more complicated, and they are often unanticipated. Take for example the brain-dead young woman in Texas being kept on life support. She was 14 weeks pregnant when she collapsed with a blood clot, but the fetus in her body is now more than 20 weeks old and in that zone where abortion is not permitted in the state. The situation is not only tragic but also ghoulish. What medical school could have prepared physicians for this kind of ethical nightmare?

Baby boomers can readily imagine the ventilator situation and provide for it through a living will. However, young people don’t think like this, and it would be impossible anyway to imagine and provide for every bizarre medical scenario.

So maybe the baby boomers will pioneer a choice that is humane and practical, one that depends on proof that the patient is both terminally ill and competent to make a decision. Then as we get more accustomed to this whole idea, perhaps it will eventually give family members the right to make a decision for someone like the mother whose body is being kept alive by a ventilator.

We may draft our living wills, but of course none of us knows what we would choose until the moment is upon us. It may be awfully hard to leave the familiar, because that’s all we know.

Mary Lou Randour in Animal Grace addresses the uncertainty in a lovely way:  “I may never know during this life the exact nature of the transformation of death, whether it is a type of reincarnation, or one’s consciousness entering a vast stream of consciousness. Whatever it is, we don’t have to be afraid of death. The body dies and the spirit, or consciousness, transforms.”

So there. That’s settled for everybody. Well, not really, and it is interesting how ineffective religion has been in helping people accept the inevitability of death. Just out of curiosity, I scanned my hefty Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett to see how many times God is mentioned versus death in some form, and God comes up short. We are apparently more preoccupied with dying.

Anyway, with regard to this matter, I’m glad at the moment that I live in New Mexico. Maybe I should check out real estate in Bernalillo County on down the road. At the moment, however, I am just going to run to the post office and mail all of my will materials to sister Kate. You just never know when this might come up.


2 Responses to “On Dying Well”

  1. Kristin

    Ellen, my sister, Jan N (’63 Burges grad) just told me about your blog and I couldn’t wait to get started . . . two entries down and so many more wonderful entries more to go!

  2. Kate

    Thanks for a thoughtful post on a timely topic.
    I think the response to the concept of death is very individual. I have religious friends who fear death and agnostic friends who are comfortable with the idea of an end of life. And vice versa. And I remember our own mother as she approached the end of life. I don’t think she feared death. She just didn’t contemplate it. I wonder what it is about the Catholic Church that finds something threatening in the idea of individuals taking control of their end of life process. I don’t even know what is so threatening about the suicide, and yet it appears to be to many. In days gone by, we got old or sick and we died. It is man and not God who is interfering with that process. I was very proud of the Bernalillo judge’s ruling, and I feel at least hopeful if not confident that the log jamb of baby boomers crowding the exit will stimulate a more pragmatic attitude.