Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Do We Want to Die Like Dogs?

I read this blog post today, and quite frankly it troubled me.

It says that a lady had to go all the way to Switzerland to have the kind of death she wanted—an assisted suicide. And the author felt that that was unfair because the lady couldn't die with her family and friends around her—something, the author argues, even a dog is entitled to.

But my question is—why did that lady feel that it was time to die? Are we really so convinced that once we are "drooling and in diapers" that we are useless? That is troubling to me.

Do we value human life so little as to say that once we no longer work as a polished cog in the system that we no longer deserve to live? Is our value defined in our usefulness? And is usefulness defined only as being able to function independently of each other?

I was talking with a friend the other day whose 90-something father is living with him and his family. He said that it has been a great thing for their home to have his father there. He implied that it can be a lot of work to care for him in his declining years, but he said the sweetness of having him there far outweighs the inconveniences his presence brings. This makes me wonder how much the cry for dignity in death is really a cry to not be bothered by caring for the aging. And that's not meant as an accusation—I'm really trying to work this out. Someone can live with dignity even if they are regressing in some abilities. You can treat people with dignity and respect them even as you're changing their diapers—it just comes down to continuing to value them and their presence. Treating someone with dignity and valuing their life will lead to dignity in death, when that comes. And that demands that we define human value apart from productivity, ability to work, coherence, and measurable contributions. Even if someone is unable to take care of himself or herself, that persons still matters, and the service those around him or her are able to render will help them feel more love and positivity in their lives, even with, or perhaps because of, the difficulty it brings.

Are we losing the chance to connect with people by serving them if we make them feel that their "usefulness" ends when their ability to make it to the toilet in time terminates? Or when their ability to recognize family members fades? Or when their mental acuity with business regresses to the math ability of a 6-year-old? Or when pain makes them about ready to pass out?

But wait, that wasn't the question. The question was if it's ok to help someone die quickly and painlessly if they ask for it, and so far I have been making some of my observations from the perspective and feelings of a relative or friend of an ailing person. That may seem skewed because the discussion of euthanasia nearly always assumes that deciding to euthanize someone that doesn't want to die is equivalent to murder. But hear me out. If all of my family members don't want to be around me and treat me as if I'm a waste of space, I am much more likely to feel a great lack of purpose in my life. And similarly, if my friend feels that her grandpa is useless and shouldn't be here because he drools and is only coherent a fourth of the time, she will most likely feel that way about herself—that her value lies in being coherent and able to keep her saliva in her mouth. Our attitudes about the usefulness and value of those around us do matter. And giving the option to kill yourself as a means to escape embarrassment, pain, or big life changes (such as getting older), seems to encourage people to evaluate themselves on productivity and not as much on true value.

This brings me to a personal example, one I'm still trying to work out. After my grandma died, my grandpa rapidly started having one medical problem after another. One particular month, he went from being able to walk and converse with people to losing the ability to walk and only being able to get a few articles of sense from his mouth at a time. It was obviously very frustrating to him, and it hurt us to see him struggling so much with not feeling right. At one point my dad told him I was going to come and see him, and he said he didn't want me to see him in this state. I didn't know that until I was already on the way, so I went ahead and saw him. It was hard to see him like that, but I also reassured him that he was still important to me and I still loved him—I knew that his mind wasn't truly reflected in what he said. He cried when he heard my voice (he was having a hard time opening his eyes that day), and grabbed my hand and we talked. He told me stories from when he was a kid, and seemed to enjoy it.

But still I wonder—Should I have respected his wishes for me not to see him? It was clear to us (family) even when it wasn't to him that he wasn't likely to get better, so not seeing him would mean not seeing him for the rest of his life. And he said that he didn't want me to see him like that when he was having a hard time communicating, so was that really what he meant to say? Was what I was able to tell him able to outweigh his embarrassment at his granddaughter seeing him in such a strange mental state? On a related note, should an ailing person's desire to die be honored, or should we consider it a passing thing, or a result of self-consciousness or shame at regressing to dependency again?

At low points in recovery stories, some people say that they just wanted to die. If they had been vocal about that at the time, would they have made it to recovery?

After reading arguments on some sides of this issue (there seem to be many, and none of them strictly simple), I've come up with some thoughts.

Humanists say that a speedy and painless death is more humane than a prolonged and painful one. In this publication, it says that a speedy release from pain and emotional suffering of those related to the person being euthanized is more merciful and outweighs the emotional pain inflicted on those suffering a loss of a loved one from suicide.

Is avoidance pain the object of life (or death)? is a course of action justified based solely on the fact that it causes less pain or curtails the amount of pain suffered?

Another argument is that if the person is terminally ill and really wants to die, euthanasia is a good solution: it's a painless and quick alternative to treatments that could prolong the pain. But it seems that that argument alone ignores the fact that this alternative is rather permanent—you can't un-kill a person, at least not medically. And once someone's been euthanized, their life is over, and they won't be there anymore—the pain is gone, but so is the person. Do we fear pain so much that we choose death over it? I don't want to minimize the suffering some people go through—but I do want to point out that avoiding pain can't really be the purpose of life (sorry, hedonists).

It comes down to why you believe we're on earth, and what life is for. But there still seems to be a wide range of possible interpretations. . . . Thoughts?


  1. Thank you for writing about things you are discovering and trying to evaluate about the world. It helps me remember how much we truly could be more present in life if we take a moment to reflect on things we are reading and learning each day.

  2. Hi, Rachel...
    Enjoyed the post, and - sorry to have caused you unrest..
    To each their own dear - it's a very touchy and personal topic..
    But as far as i'm concerned - i always fall on the side of options..
    have a great evening!

    1. Leslie—
      Thanks for responding to my post! And you're right, this can be a very touchy topic. I'm glad we were able to have some discussion about it.

      As for causing unrest, I think it's through being confronted with uncomfortable paradoxes and hard questions that I come to seek truth. So don't apologize for it. :)