Last month I wrote a column titled, “ My mother’s choice to die.” I was nervous about it — first, because I’d never published anything quite so personal; second, because I thought the idea of making active choices at the end of life might go against some people’s beliefs. The responses I got were not only 100 percent supportive, they were exquisitely compassionate. Your letters brought tears to my eyes. I’d like to share some of what you all had to say.
Many, many people have been through a family death, and I am privileged to have heard so many heartfelt stories. Some came from the distant past, but the emotions involved clearly remain fresh in people’s hearts.
“I’m thinking of my own mom; you never really get over it.”
“If only our parents could live forever.”
Others who wrote are, even now, in the midst of standing vigil at the bedside of a loved one. To all of you, I say, “Thank you.” Your words of kindness to me meant a great deal, and I want to offer my condolences to you as you navigate this tender and difficult life transition.
Death is, after all, just one life transition, one landmark in the drama that is a human lifetime. We tell stories about birth. It is a time of wonder and awe and great change, a shift in the alignment of our own personal universe.
Dying, too, is a time of wonder and awe and great change. Our personal universe is altered, and we must recreate our lives in a new context. It seems to me that we ought to be sharing our end of life stories the same way we share our beginning of life stories. Though one is centered on joy and one on grief, both are profoundly moving experiences for the surrounding families. They are equally essential threads in the fabric of a life.
Another subject addressed in many of my letters was the idea of choosing to cease life-sustaining care. Near the end of life, some choose to stop eating, drinking or taking any medicine other than treatment for pain and anxiety.
“Your article was a good reminder to us all how important it is to be empowered to let go.”
“In early November [my mother] asked if she had to eat. We told her no she didn’t. She said she didn’t want to be around for Thanksgiving and died on November 15th. Thank you for sharing your experience. It is something we will all go through.”
“It’s very important to stress the importance of a person’s choices, both for the person and for the family.”
“Perhaps the column will ease some of the fear so many of us have about the natural process of dying.”
It was encouraging to read how many people had positive experiences working with hospice care, not only because of the caring support of hospice workers, but also because dying patients and their families were able to feel some degree of control over the circumstances surrounding death.
“Although a wrenching experience, the overall rightness of it overcame every bit of the incredible difficulty.”
The hardest responses I got were from those who harbor regrets about a family member’s death. To them I say that a family-managed death at home is not always possible nor advisable. There is no single right way to manage the end of life, and we can only do the best we are able with the unique circumstances of our own situation. That said, the importance of planning ahead is supreme. There is a great deal that can be done to allay the worst sting of death. Part of that is talking with each other about the dying process.
Here are a few references for starting the conversation:
I will leave you with two more reader remarks.
“There is a lot to be said for fighting a good fight and in the end knowing when your time is up and the end is in fact inevitable. OK, compare this to something I can relate to; let’s compare to basketball. Basketball, unlike life, has a finite number on the clock. Yet the end of a close game, one team pulls away. Eventually the coach understands that time and score are not in his team’s favor and the loss is unavoidable. The decision to not foul and allow the other team to dribble the ball and let the clock expire, is not so much giving up as it is facing reality.”
“Thank you for sharing your experience, and I hope that it encourages others to think about what they would need to have in place to have a peaceful, quiet, and dignified death.”
Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful responses.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.