The teachings found in yoga are unafraid to address the notion of death. In fact, understanding and acceptance of the inevitability of death is seen as something that paradoxically frees one to be more fully alive in this moment. As a teacher, I thought I had fairly clear ideas on it. That is, until someone very close to me died.
More than two years ago, Jeff, my life partner of 11 years, died after an 18-month struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). It was a harrowing experience for both of us, and I cannot begin to imagine what it was like to face this disease head-on as Jeff did. I just know that it nearly took me down in the process as well.
Since that time, I have had many profound moments of growth, healing, and change. One aspect that has stayed in my heart is the notion of self-stewardship at the end of life. It’s something few people address head-on or articulate in a living will. But these heady decisions are something most of us will have to face at one point or another, either for ourselves, our parents, or someone we love.
During the time Jeff was progressing through the disease, we lived in Oregon, a state that recognizes a person’s right to self-steward at the end of life. When we moved to Oregon just two years prior, we had no idea it was a “right to die” state. There are only two such states in the US that allow this freedom. If a person is diagnosed with a terminal illness and has less than six months to live, they are legally allowed to end their life, and the suffering that comes with it, if they so choose.
This is not usually an in-demand topic for discussion at casual social gatherings, but once engaged, most people have a strong opinion. To my surprise, very few of the people I’ve talked with are vehemently against the notion. Most are curious and unsure about it all. Some feel clear that they believe they have a right to make their own decisions in this type of situation.
What I now understand anecdotally is that people from other states end their lives at the end stage of disease all the time, but it is illegal, and therefore sometimes shady or dangerous, in how it is carried out. This is why the topic needs to be addressed.
About a year after Jeff died, I returned to our hometown of Portland to take care of logistical details in finalizing my move to Hawaii. I met with a friend who had helped another couple go through the same experience as us. For their own personal reasons, this couple had agreed that they would not consider the option of Death with Dignity. Given the magnitude of this decision process, it was a personal choice I respected. I knew how hard it was: In fact, each time Jeff and I addressed this issue in the 18 months prior to his death, I would walk away with either a migraine or physical nausea. It’s a tough process to have to face. But as the son of a clear-thinking attorney, I emphatically supported Jeff in making sure he kept his options open. I would have supported any decision he would make.
Sadly, this couple lost their battle with the disease as well and the husband died, but only after months of lingering in what I can now fully imagine as a fate worse than death. You see, ALS robs the individual of their ability to breathe and swallow, in addition to rendering them with full-body paralysis. Their lungs fill with fluid and they essentially end up slowly choking to death. “Dismal” is one of the lighter terms I’ve used described the process.
After her husband died, his spouse turned to my friend and said, “You know, toward the end, we both wished was had at least considered having the option similar to what Jeff and Will did. I don’t know if we would have actually gone through with it, but it would have helped us feel more empowered toward the end."
When I heard this, I felt a calling. I was surprised and saddened that they had suffered so much. I wondered why they hadn’t at least addressed this issue to keep their options open. The suffering with this disease is remarkable, and my heart goes out to them both.
I understand that this issue stirs up so much in people. Religious and spiritual values come in to play, and at the end of the day, it is simply an excruciating issue to have to face. Because of this, I have to guess some people simply choose not to face it.
Since Jeff’s passing, I have learned anecdotally about how people in other states support people at the end of life. When someone makes a decision to end their lives, come hell or high water, they will find a way to do so. However, the process is unsupported, often dangerous, and certainly harrowing for all connected to it. I feel it is tremendously undignified.
In her controversial book To Die Like A Dog, New Zealander Lesley Martin describes how she ended up as the primary caregiver for her mother, who was diagnosed with a severe form of rectal cancer. Toward the end-stage of her cancer, her gentle mother turned to her in abject pain and suffering and pleaded, “Don’t make me go through any more suffering, please.” The mother openly asked why dogs are treated more humanely than humans in dire situation like hers.
At this request, and feeling desperate, Lesley took matters into her own hands. As a nurse, she ended up overdosing her mother with morphine and putting a pillow over her head. This dramatic choice still haunts me as I think about it. There is much more to her story—and legal court cases followed—but suffice it to say, she was largely outcast for her actions. All I know for sure is that this case points out that waiting until death’s door to make this important decision is unwise.
There are many slippery roads on this path, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s just agree that we are talking about a very narrow path—those people diagnosed with a terminal illness with less than six months to live, who are fully cognizant and able to make their own decisions.
What are your thoughts? Do you have a living will? How does your spiritual inner life affect how you view this idea? How do your religious values affect how you view this idea? Do you think “Death with Dignity” is a fundamental freedom and right for all human beings? Or does it open pandora’s box?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings on this hot-button issue, if for no other reason than to get us all talking about it.