Deaths of desperation

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Advocates of assisted suicide, both here in Massachusetts and around the globe, often claim that they are fighting for the right to “die with dignity.” But they say little about the right to “live with dignity.”

Each year, too many terminally ill people choose to end their lives willfully and with a prideful sense of autonomy in order to prevent the inevitable ordeal of physical and mental decline. Many of these people act out of fear of the unknown and a refusal to accept the inevitable. Death and what follows will always be a mystery to us. We will always fear it or, if we are people of faith, embrace its promise. Yet accept its reality we must. And there are different ways of doing so.

No doubt, many who choose suicide envision a beautiful, peaceful death, surrounded by family and close friends. But is that always the outcome? The idea of a willed and orchestrated death, coupled with a clarity of mind set on final mastery of fate, may sound poetic. But those who choose death through suicide, in fact, choose the least comforting, least meaningful way to die.

In some ways, those who have the good fortune to face death in the western world have never had it so good. Palliative care, the treatment of any kind of physical pain to the point of near unconsciousness, is now accessible and common. No matter the ailment, a person can be made to feel almost painless in the face of physical decline.

Physical pain, however, is not what seems to ail the modern person most. Rather, it is the idea of increasing physical dependence on others and a sense of powerlessness, physical decline, and loss of control that seem to scare most proponents of assisted suicide. As a society, we have come to believe that personal dignity is tied up with personal mastery of circumstance and fate.

But is there not dignity in humility, in accepting our human frailty and in surrendering to the inevitable? This, indeed, is the ultimate dignity and the mark of a truly beautiful death.

The process of dying, and the suffering that surrounds such an occurrence, can often create a space for the most intense and meaningful encounters. Through the suffering of physical pain, emotional anxiety, and physical decline, the warm light of selfless love shines through with greatest intensity.

It is the love of children caring for their parent, the love of parents caring for a child, the love of friends and relatives. It is a chance for those who tend to the dying to rise above the their own fears and anxieties, not to mention the petty concerns of daily life, and to come to understand what is truly important. Love trumps all, and this is never more clear than in our care for the dying. Families that have come together to care for a dying loved one never fail to offer inspiration and hope. Giving someone the opportunity to love and care is like giving them the gift of meaning.

A few years ago, my own mother passed away from pancreatic cancer. It is said that this type of cancer is the most painful kind as, indeed, some patients are often unresponsive to pain management. My mother suffered excruciating pain for about three months, and eventually drifted in and out of consciousness. Family and friends who came by to see her often left the room to regain composure, so shocked were they by the sight of her emaciated self, of a woman who had once been beautiful and had always radiated love and warmth. Yet, throughout her physical agony and decline, she was the epitome of dignity, never complaining, demanding, or expressing bitterness. Letting my siblings and me care for her was her final gift to us.

A few days before her passing, with what must have been some of the last energy her frail body could muster, she took my hand and squeezed it tightly. Unable to speak, this was her final maternal act, a simple act of love that contained in itself a mother’s immeasurable love for her child and a comfort beyond the limits of time and space. During her very last moments, it was I who held her hand again. Yet the time had come. She pulled away and, finally, it was time for her to go.

Faced with the final threshold between life and death, between hope and despair, we are challenged to be our best. This final space of human encounter calls for hope and reconciliation. Pride and pettiness must step aside, grudges must be buried, and we must rise in full defiance of despair.

The dying and the caring, the surrendering and the giving, have a chance to make things right. Those who cut short this final stretch refuse to give the final gift to the living.

Those who precipitate their own death through sterile methods miss the chance to die in dignity precisely because they believe that dignity is a matter of personal control. But dignity in its final triumph is the opposite. True dignity is the acceptance of lack of control. True dignity is the embrace of humility. True dignity is the acceptance of unconditional love.

To those who will it, death is a simple solution. But it is a solution that lacks dignity, beauty, or meaning. As a just and humanitarian society, let us beware of the fallacy of quick and easy exits.

Tina McCormick is Publisher of the NewBostonPost.

Should physician-assisted suicide be legal in Massachusetts?

Some say the measure helps people seeking to avoid a painful death, others believe unintended consequences could easily arise when insurers are left to choose expensive, life-prolonging treatments or cheap, fatal drugs. What do you believe?