(Author’s Note: I originally meant to write about my reaction to an article I read about medically assisted suicide, but it became a personal reflection on death and dying instead. I’m going to post it anyway despite the intimate nature of these thoughts. I hope that you will consider them with respect. Thank you.)
We don’t talk about death. That’s the rule.
It’s not just an unwritten rule, either; it’s illegal to want to die in almost every state except for four. Unless you live in Oregon, Washington, Vermont or Montana, you are not allowed to ask for help to end your life, no matter how ravaged you are due to disease, no matter how much dignity you’ve lost, no matter how onerous life has become, you have to tough it out to the bitter end.
And to that I ask: why?
No, that’s not right. I know why.
Part of it is because of the pervasive and poorly-defined concept of “the sanctity of life,” which is a somewhat ironic condemnation when it’s coming from a vegetarian. In fact, I support the sanctity of death because of my respect and love for life. The sanctity of death is necessary for there to be any such thing as a sanctity of life. The word sanctity is used without understanding what it’s supposed to mean. People think it means being alive is more important than everything else, but that’s not correct. Is being alive more important than living with dignity? Is being alive more important than being without agony?
Regardless, we don’t talk about death even though it’s the one thing that we all have in common. It’s our common bond and our equalizer: kings and beggars both die. Men and women of every race, every creed, every class, every corner of the world. We all die.
Everything dies. Even the planets, stars, and galaxies die. Reality itself will likely die someday due to entropy. We’re all in this together. Nobody’s getting out alive.
Why are we afraid of that? Why don’t we talk about the most common element of our shared humanity? We celebrate life in all its forms, save for the one aspect that gives life its greatest meaning. We plan weddings, graduations, the births of children, and all of life’s other many milestones, but when it comes time for the grand finale, how many of us think about it? Ever? Instead, we let others plan it for us and define a moment that should be ours, assuming there’s even somebody around at that point to pay attention. Not everybody has even that much.
It’s not a question of wanting to die; I don’t really want to, but wanting isn’t really the point. It’s about accepting that I will and you will and we all will.
It’s about having a healthy respect for life.
And to me, stretching life out long past the breaking point isn’t about respecting it at all. It’s the same as the author who pushes out repetitive novels of earlier and better works or the movie franchise that had too many sequels or whatever other creative thing you enjoyed until its creator squeezed it too tightly, trying too fervently to get every last drop out of it rather than letting go and moving on.
The best stories are the one that end when it’s their time to end.
The saddest stories are the ones that are forgotten because they hung around far past the point of anybody caring because they weren’t allowed to end.
So, here’s me, right now in a point in time and space, thinking about the future. Thinking about the end and how I want it written.
Here’s how I want my story to end. I might not get this ending; every writer knows that sometimes your characters throw you for a loop or the story takes an unexpected twist. But assuming it all turns out as planned, this is the way my story ends.
I want to be at home.
One of my greatest fears is dying in a hospital. I don’t like hospitals; they’re cold and mechanical places. I feel terrible every time I walk past the open door of an occupied room in a hospital, because I imagine myself lying in that bed, looking out at the people walking past the door and knowing that they don’t know me and they don’t care that I’m dying. Hospitals are very lonely places, no matter who you’re with. I don’t want to die in a lonely place.
I want my final moments to be experienced in my favorite place: my place. I want to see my pictures and my books and whatever technology I have and whatever pets I have. I want my family to be there if they can, but I don’t want them to feel the need to keep a vigil over me for fear that I might die alone. So long as I’m in my space, no matter where that space is, as long as it’s home, I won’t be alone.
This is why I support the right to die.
I should be allowed to decide these things. I should be allowed to experience my last moment with dignity. It may be that this never happens: my death may be sudden or it may be an unexpected accident or it may be that I never experience the slow, wasting away due to disease and this right is unnecessary.
But if it does end with me in a ravaged state, I want to know that my life and my story end with the respect that I, and every other person who ever has lived, ever does live, and ever will live deserve.
Because to ignore it and pretend that it won’t happen isn’t just irresponsible. It isn’t just magical thinking. It means we forget, or worse, ignore the needs of those who are dying for fear that they might remind us of our own deaths. Some people might say there’s nothing worse than death. I can think of many things that are worse than death.
Being forgotten in your life’s final moments is worse than death.
Being ignored in your life’s final moments is worse than death.
Dying in agony is worse than death.
Dying without dignity is worse than death.
There are many things that are worse than death and we perpetuate them every time we shun the dying to a corner and turn our eyes away.
This is why we should talk about death.