Watching now the proper pomp and circumstance paid to that remarkable leader Nelson Mandela on the occasion of his death at 95 reminds us all that our own time will come. All through life the chance of making life changing bad decisions gives everyone including secular writers such as me, religious leaders and politicians multiple opportunities to help you make them.
For instance, how about the constant pressure from celibate (we wonder!) Catholic priests or any other dissenting religious clergy to not use birth control or obtain a safe abortion despite the threat to one’s health or survival or simply the wish not to be a mother. In short, “on demand”, as Roe vs Wade initially came down, although that decision has since been constantly amended and badly undermined by those who feel it is better to have plethora of unwanted children already populating any given family, let alone the planet generally.
That’s the sort of beginning of life advice or doctrine which one needs to interpret for one’s self, but frequently such fateful choices about contraception and/or abortion are made for women by an absence or failure or cost of contraceptives, a pro-natal cultural climate, male dominated religious hierarchies driven by outmoded dangerous credos, or medical professionals who balk at fulfilling one’s wishes.
Then, as we totter along through life, trying to make good and productive lives, we get multiple opportunities to wreck havoc on ourselves and others. However, our backbone to veer out of destructive behavior that is certified as proper or ethical or religiously appropriate often requires a strength that few among us possess.
Particularly when one ages and is suddenly beset with dealing with serious, life ending health problems. So dying with dignity should become a primary goal, without pain, at peace, and at one’s own time without the forces of church and/or state ganging up to dictate an extended agonizing life.
Both ends of life are often dictated to by cultural, religious and governmental rules which make no sense for individual situations. All too often, families are faced with end of life situations which have not been prepared for, discussed or arranged properly! Who wants to talk about death?
Well, you better make careful plans about the end of life decision because, if not, forces you don’t agree with may make them for you.
My wife and I attended a lovely dinner at a local residence recently to discuss with a very sophisticated small group of older citizens the beleaguered process of dying with dignity and comfort and at the desired time.
All there were supporters of an excellent NGO called Compassion and Choices, which has made giant strides in helping foster sensible policies in 4 US states, which now allow physician panels to authorize euthanasia for terminally ill persons and then to prescribe the necessary medicines which allow these folks to end their lives on their own schedules. I am told that about half the people who get these approvals do end their lives; the others simply allow nature to take its course.
However, dying in America in a free and appropriate way as noted above still has miles to go in breaking the religious grip of unrealistic beliefs that often stop sensible releases from hopeless diseases.
The star of the above mentioned dinner evening was an award winning science writer, Katy Butler, whose book, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path To A Better Way Of Death” was just issued in September, 2013. A signed copy of her book was our gift for coming.
Her talk traced the totally unsatisfactory exit of her aged father, who survived in untenable condition as a broken, mentally and physically disabled shell of a person for years past what he would have, had he had the chance to chose his own death. His ghastly life’s extension was caused by what is often typical in America: Over aggressive medical treatment!! In this case, his lengthy painful trek to death started with a completely unnecessary heart pacemaker. This insured his body would survive far past any proper time. It meant that he had constant need for long term intensive personal care, including for incontinency. This situation devolved on his then healthy wife, whose final years of reasonable life were utterly ravaged by her husband’s doctors who refused to disable the pacemaker, committing her husband to a prolonged and agonizing death.
When, several years later, Butler’s mother’s serious heart problem arose, she simply rebelled at her physician’s advice, refusing open heart surgery and died shortly afterwards with dignity and in peace. Both daughter and mother understood too late that their loved one was the victim of an initial abject failure of the system to make the proper decision at the end his end of life.
Having had myself at 83 extensive experience with several family member exits, I found my self in strong agreement with Butler’s research findings about the way death is now often handled by the medical profession. When, after 3 years of attempting every avenue of treatment for my wife’s lung cancer, her doctor wanted to put her in the hospital. He was told in no uncertain terms by my wife and me that would not happen. She died some weeks later very peacefully, with proper pain killing dermal patches in her own bed, which we both slept in together to the end of her life.
Let me say in fairness that through the same hospital at which our MD served where we declined to put my wife, I was able to recruit out patient hospice care at our house. Its out patient hospice personnel offered a very fine alternative; their visiting nurses trained me and members of my family in the necessary things we had to perform, as well as giving us, with helpful literature and counseling, the confidence to carry through to my wife’s death.
Don’t fail to read this Butler book. But remember it is especially important to have the kind of conversations with family that it suggests, so you or others in the family may not be trapped by bad medical advice which can certainly prolong life, but not for the better.
Of course the practical Swiss have allowed assisted suicide since 1941 to all who wish to come, including non-citizens, who can pay the nominal fee to have it done. The only drawback of course is that you must be consciously doing the deed yourself. One of America’s lingering problems for those who are able to do their own deaths is the problem of obtaining the means, something which needs attended to by Compassion and Choices and many other fine helping agencies.
So what are my take away messages? 1. Make plans ahead by having a living will and put it in a place where it is known to be and readily available to the appropriate next of kin. 2. Be sure to have a family pow wow with those empowered to execute your signed intentions. Often even with signed documents, the medical people don’t or won’t follow the wishes of the signatory, 3. Be sure to decide not to take advice from your church or your physician if that counsel allows them to put you in a medical facility where you or your family lose control of the ability to end your family member’s life peacefully, with dignity and with the least trauma possible.
Don’t let the power of religion or the medical profession steal your right to do the above. Unfortunately too often church and state laws combine to keep justice and reason from occurring.
And just being a VIP may not save a person from aggressive care.
Shown a number of times during the extensive media coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death was a scene of the former President wordlessly presiding at the head of a banquet table. At one point, presumably his wife, sitting at his right hand, reaches over and wipes his mouth with her napkin. It is reported that Nelson Mandela had feeding tubes when he died. Would he have wanted to be kept alive those extra months or weeks if he had been in full control?
From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013
By Donald A. Collins
Publisher: Church and State Press (July 30, 2014)
Sir Terry Pratchett – Shaking Hands with Death (2010). Assisted Suicide / Euthanasia
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