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Death by Choice

A few years ago my dog died.  It was a Sunday morning.  As I was preparing my morning coffee he came stumbling down the hallway.  With his tired, old head cocked oddly to one side, he managed to fumble his way into the family room before collapsing, head first, on the carpet.  He’d had a stroke.  The next morning, I took him to the vet and had him put down.  As I held him in my arms I could feel his essence slowly seep away until finally, he was free of all the pain and confusion.

I buried his body in the back yard where he used to play.  Although I miss him, I do not mourn his death.  It is something we all must do someday.

Not long after my dog passed, a human friend of mine did the same thing.  Every Sunday afternoon for the previous year I had visited him in his room at the hospice.  Initially, he’d been given six months to live.  He hung on for three years.  Finally, he started coughing up coffee grounds and it was over.  Although I miss him, I do not mourn his death – I am, in fact, happy for him – I know how he suffered.

For over a year, I watched him deteriorate and waste away.  Each night he went to bed hoping he would not see the sunrise, hoping he’d not have to spend another day in his chair staring out the window on an empty gravel parking lot, hoping he would just die.  As the days turned into weeks and the weeks dragged into months, the agony became endless.  His life was already over, but his body was still functioning.  The constant pain medication did little more than dull the edge of his hellish existence.  He so desperately wanted to die and be free, but he wasn’t allowed.

In Occidental society we avoid death.  Every other transition of our life we embrace and celebrate: birth, graduation, marriage, and retirement.  But death, we avoid.  Our religions treat death as something to fear unless you have all your squares filled and your ticket validated.  Our health care system is not equipped to deal with the reality of death.  It is not a life care system – it is a death avoidance system.

How is it that people who’ve been allowed to live their life on their own terms are not allowed to die on their own terms?

Conscious living is a fundamental human right.  So should be conscious dying.  People who are dying do not need us to save their life.  They need us to give them back their life and all the options and rights to it, including the right to end it.

We live in a culture where the virtues of self-reliance are held in sacred regard.  Failure to stand on one’s own is secular blasphemy – until we come to the end of our life and then, we’re stripped of our independence and freedom to choose.  In our most desperate hour we are left to languish at the will and whim of relatives, friends and strangers who rob us of the freedom we had throughout our life and force us to “hang in there.”

How is it that in a society where individuals – rightfully – are expected to live their own life, make their own choices and accept responsibility for their own actions are denied the most fundamental choice of all?  This is an untenable double standard.

The concept of someone voluntarily ending their own earthly existence may seem repugnant to some but to the person lying helpless in their own waste, waiting for the inevitable, the prospect takes on a whole new perspective.  To them, wasting away in agony is repugnant.

There is no argument eloquent enough to convince someone who may disagree with my position to suddenly “switch sides.”  Further, I’m not so naïve as to think that anyone reading this would be compelled to change their mind.  But the real issue is, no one has to agree or change their mind.  All that is necessary is for us, as a culture, to recognize and respect the beliefs and wishes of our dying and allow them to choose for themselves according to their own conscience.  We’ve allowed them their freedom throughout the whole of their life.  All we have to do is allow them their freedom throughout the end of their life.  This isn’t really all that difficult.

After all, whose life is it, anyway?

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  1. August 12, 2012 at 3:57 am

    Wow… I agree with you. If I ever became a vegetable or horribly bedridden at old age, then I would want to be put to sleep. My brother and others working in healthcare all the more empathize with your view. It is very much depressing to see people suffer and many have conditions that make it seem unfair to keep them that way. You have great courage and honesty to write this post. I like it! haha

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