Tag: suicide

Dr. Death’s Final Decision

June 4th, 2011 — 9:59pm

After championing the rights of the sick and suffering to get help ending their lives — and providing that “help” to scores of terminally ill patients — Dr. Jack Kevorkian died of natural causes on Friday at the age of 83.

According to Geoffrey Fieger, the lawyer who represented Kevorkian in several of his trials in the 1990s, Kevorkian was too weak to take advantage of the option he had offered others and had long wished for himself. “If he had enough strength to do something about it,” Fieger told a news conference in Southfield, Michigan, “he would have.”

If that is true, there is something almost epically tragic about the fact that a man who fought so long and hard for patients’ right to die on their own terms, wasn’t able to take advantage of this option in the end. But then who is to say “Dr. Death” didn’t simply change his mind? He’d apparently been suffering from kidney failure and pneumonia for over a month, long enough to plan his own death if he’d wanted to. He was a doctor and entirely familiar with how to end a life quickly and painlessly. And given his well-known penchant for drama and attention, you’d think he’d want to make himself exhibit A for what he believed in. (At the start of his third trial, he showed up in court wearing Colonial-era clothing to show how antiquated he thought the charges were and, after videotaping himself helping to kill a patient, he voluntarily handed the tape over to “60 Minutes.”)

The fact that Kevorkian didn’t end his own life is, to me, a potent reminder that our political beliefs are not always in the driver’s seat when it comes to death. Just as one can imagine even the staunchest anti-assisted suicide crusader wavering in the face of extreme pain and disability, I have found that certain pro-assisted suicide people seem to believe that killing oneself is actually a better option than dying naturally. Often, when I mention that I wrote a book about my mother’s decision to end her life after a long illness, people say, “Oh, well I definitely plan to do that. I’ve already made it clear that that the minute I get a disease, I want someone to take me out back and shoot me!”

I get the humor but there is a glib — even fashionable — assumption that suicide, assisted or not, is a good way to go. I want to ask: How would your kids feel if you do that? Your spouse? And how would you feel if it was them making that choice? I’m a big supporter of the Death with Dignity Laws in this country, but frankly, as long as I’m not in pain and have some quality of life, I’m planning to “go naturally,” just like Kevorkian did in the end.

The idea that ending your life is going to be easier and more straightforward than letting nature take its course is something of a happy illusion. Having witnessed both my parents dying in very different ways, I know that even the best laid plans for death can go awry. It reminds me of the “birth plan” I drafted when I was pregnant. Somehow, between planning the perfect play list and specifying that I didn’t want an episiotomy, I forgot to factor in throwing up, forgetting to breathe, and the uncontrollable urge to yell obscenities at the nurse. So much for my beautiful birthing experience.

It may be a cliche, but there really are some things we can’t control and even for strong-minded people like my mother, who was determined to plot the details of her “end,” you simply cannot know how you will feel when the day comes. In fact, my mother set and changed her “death dates” several times, discovering on the chosen day that she wasn’t quite ready to go after all.

In Bill Moyers’ PBS special on assisted suicide a few years ago (“On Our Own Terms: Moyers on Dying”), not one of the people Moyers followed actually ended up killing themselves. There was always one more event they wanted to stay alive for: a birthday, or a grandchild’s graduation. Every one of his subjects waited until it was too late and no longer had the physical capability to manage it. All, except for one woman who died from natural causes before she had a chance to take the pills she’d stockpiled. Pulling the plug turns out to not always be so easy.

Adding to the vagaries of the psyche is the unpredictability of the body. Unless you live in one of the three states where physician assisted suicide is legal (Oregon, Washington and Montana) and have access to a group like Compassion & Choices who will help make sure you are taking the right dose of drugs, chances are you will not know how to calibrate the means of death. In my mother’s case, stopping eating and drinking took far longer than she’d expected, and an attempted morphine overdose failed. Although she did ultimately manage to end her life, it was not the controlled, predictable event she’d hoped for.

I read recently that the issue of assisted suicide splits this country almost completely in half, making it an especially divisive and contentious issue. I would respectfully suggest that both sides may have lost sight of the fact that death can – and will — make a mockery of even the most carefully laid plans, the most passionately held beliefs.

And who knows, when it came down to it, maybe Jack Kevorkian simply wanted to stay alive and was hoping he might recover. Or maybe his lawyer is right and he wished someone had been there to help him speed things along. We will never know and that is as it should be. Because as politicized as it has become in this county, death is ultimately a private experience, fraught with unknowns. And Dr. Kevorkian, like all of us who support assisted suicide as a legal and moral principle, had the right to change his mind.

This piece was published in Salon on June 4th, 2011.

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The Ghost in My Quilt

March 15th, 2011 — 3:50pm
mother's quilt, Vermont

My Mother's Quilt, Vermont, March 2011

After a whirlwind 24-hours in New York City to promote my book and attend an award ceremony, I arrived at my sister Sarah’s farmhouse in Northern Vermont ready to relax and enjoy the deep piles of New England snow.

Straight out of a Vermont Life calendar, Sarah’s house is a gorgeous 1850’s era farmhouse with a large pond and spectacular three-story red barn, and my first evening was spent enjoying a meal with some close friends who live nearby. But as we put away the leftovers and prepared to turn in, my good mood was abruptly punctured when my sister said: “I hope you don’t mind that I have Momma’s quilt on the bed where you’re sleeping. I’ve never brought it out before but I realized that the blue was a perfect match for the trim so I stuck it in your room.”

My mind instantly flashed on the blue-and-white quilt that had covered my mother’s bed during the final months of her life. “My God, I think she even died under it,” I thought uneasily, although not wanting to be overly dramatic, I kept the thought to myself. But I could feel my body recoil. Because I did mind. A lot.

“I’m not so sure I do want it on my bed,” I finally replied, not sure how to explain why I felt such an intense aversion to the idea. I’m not superstitious and I could have viewed this remnant of my mother’s life as a comfort, an opportunity to feel her presence in a loving and peaceful way. But I didn’t. Instead, I felt a painful stab of memory as scenes from the days leading up to her suicide flipped through my mind. In distressing detail, I saw her lying in her bed, lonely and unhappy, plotting how to kill herself — and all the time covered by that damn quilt!

“Really?” My sister looked over at me with surprise and perhaps a slight trace of impatience. “Well, maybe you should get over that,” she suggested. “Think of it as a nice thing.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said, still not wanting it on my bed but reluctant to insist she give me a different quilt.

Gathering up my suitcase and preparing to go upstairs, I realized that my mother’s old patchwork quilt — an item I’d described in my memoir, Imperfect Endings — was an emblem to me of her entrapment. Entrapment in her room; in her bed; and in her illness. To her, death was the means to free herself from that entrapment, something I came to understand and even sympathize with. But knowing that she’d chosen death because she no longer felt life worth living was still painful for me to confront, even after all these years.

And I couldn’t help feeling that if I slid under that same quilt, I would find myself similarly – scarily – yoked by it. I don’t believe in ghosts but I wondered: Wouldn’t this most intimate of her possessions, the very cloth she’d touched and lain under day after day, night after night, contain some energetic memory of her? Some psychic imprint of her spirit, her personhood? And not just of her, but of her pain, her desperate desire to escape.

Uneasily, I headed up the stairs and entered the room. There was the quilt. A lighter blue than I remember. Pretty. Simple. Just a quilt, I told myself. A quilt that matches the trim.

But the uneasiness stirred again as I climbed in underneath it and I had to resist the urge to unfold the extra wool blanket at the foot of the bed and cover it up. Drifting off to sleep, I wondered if I would dream of her and who she would be in those dreams. Would she be the mother I’d had as a child? The tall, beautiful woman with thick dark hair and broad shoulders who’d made me cocoa and tucked me in at night? Or the depleted, stiff woman who’d lain under this quilt at the end of her life, longing to escape the confines of her body, of the earthly realm itself?

It turned out that none of these ghosts would appear, imaginary or otherwise. Instead, as the snow fell outside my window, adding to the already impressive drifts piled up against the house, I slept as heavily as a child. And a funny thing happened. By the second night, the quilt no longer seemed to hold its aura of entrapment or pain. It was… just a quilt – simple, pretty. A good match for the trim. An object that happened to have belonged to my mother.

And as I pulled it up around me on my last night, ran my fingers along its soft edges, I felt myself held lightly in its embrace.

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Nothing Left to Burn: A Wesleyan Student’s Final Message

September 22nd, 2010 — 11:55am

It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. Last week, Nora Miller, a junior at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, committed suicide by dousing herself with a flammable liquid and lighting herself on fire at the edge of one of the University’s playing fields. She was discovered early Monday morning with burns over 100 percent of her body and airlifted to Hartford Hospital. She died shortly after at a nearby burn unit.

According to various University blogs, the night before she died, Miller wrote the following entry on her Facebook page: “When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.” The quote is from a song by a band called the Stars, from their album “Set Yourself on Fire.” Culling through various online comments by friends of Miller’s, there were numerous mentions of her sadness and depression. How could it be otherwise? A girl who feels she has “nothing left to burn” is in a dark place indeed.

A week later, the story continues to weigh on me. As a parent, I feel enormous sadness for Miller’s family. To lose a twenty-two-year-old daughter under any circumstances is unbearable. To lose a child to suicide, especially one as violent and painful as this one, can only mean a whole other level of hell. In fact, to even speculate about this family’s grief feels intrusive and part of me wonders if the only acceptable response to her death is to simply draw a curtain around it. Let those who knew Miller grieve in privacy.

And yet, I am haunted by the fate of this promising dark-haired girl, a film major and track star who reportedly liked Converse chucks and funky jewelry. A girl who shattered track records and was at the top of her class. Like so many smart and accomplished young people, she was – on paper anyway — someone who seemed to go from success to success, strength to strength.  Until, of course, she didn’t and despite her talent and drive was unable to see any way forward but her own violent end.

I am haunted by Nora Miller because I think as parents we sometimes fail to recognize how stressed-out and unhappy our children are, especially when they are successful. And that the pressure we put on them to excel – to have perfect grades, high test scores, artistic and athletic accomplishments – can be toxic, especially when mixed with underlying depression.

I am haunted by Nora Miller’s death because my daughter is one of those driven, hard-working young women. She also happens to be a freshman at Wesleyan. And while it feels wrong to dwell on my own state of mind in the face of this tragedy, I have to admit that having Miller’s suicide occur just two weeks after dropping my daughter off at her “Wes” dorm makes me feel her absence that much more acutely. Calls and texts have reassured me that my daughter is — for now anyway — happy and engaged. But Miller’s death has reminded me to never take such happiness for granted.

I do not presume to know why Nora Miller took her life, and I don’t want to imply that her parents were in any way at fault. But when a young woman ends her life in this kind of dramatic and public way, I do not think we can pull the curtain down and pretend it didn’t happen. We owe it to her to consider what her death might be telling us about how we are raising our children — and how we might do it better.

A version of this piece appeared in Slate.com on September 22nd, 2010

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Readers Write Back

March 23rd, 2010 — 9:55pm

Imperfect Endings has been on the stands for exactly three weeks today and it’s been a whirlwind of media coverage — a feature in The Washington Post, an hour on WBUR, interviews and reviews — but the most gratifying response has come from the many people who have contacted me through my website to tell me their stories of losing parents, many of them from Parkinson’s disease.

In addition to the eloquence of these emails, what has amazed me is that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM wrote to say that they supported my mother’s choice! Not one person questioned her decision to die on her own terms — or mine to support her.

I feel so grateful for this positive response. I have to say that in the months leading up to publication, I worried I was going to get attacked for supporting my mother’s decision to end her life (although I did, for a time, argue against it) and for speaking out in favor of legalized assisted suicide. It’s actually been the opposite. So many people, especially those who have lost parents to Parkinson’s, have expressed gratitude for my writing frankly about her choice, and have told me that — in their experience — my mother spared herself a very tough ending. (Obviously, Parkinson’s varies greatly from person to person and I don’t want to frighten anyone. My mother’s Parkinson’s was actually quite slow to progress and highly manageable for many years; it was only the last year or so that it got difficult for her.)

Of course, a few critics did pop up in the blogosphere. I’ve shown up on a few Catholic blogs (understandable — as, for them, suicide in all its forms is a sin). But how to explain the conservative blogger who blamed my mother’s death on the Democrats and the new healthcare reform bill? (Do I hear the sound of a knee jerking?) This was especially ludicrous as my mother died almost nine years ago!

But today is not about the critics. It’s a day to celebrate  this amazing opportunity to engage in conversation about end of life issues with a wider audience, and to express my gratitude to those of you who took the time out of your busy lives to write to me. Your willingness to share your stories was both illuminating and moving. These first three weeks are dedicated to you!

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