One of the first things that I read about on Monday morning was the self-elected death of Brittany Maynard, the 29 year old young woman who had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer a year a little less than a year ago. As I went through my day, I received news that a former co-worker’s elderly mother had passed away and that my wife’s middle aged uncle had passed away. Needless to say, my mind kept returning to the news of this young woman who decided that she would take drugs to assist her in her death rather than allow her disease to take its course.
There are many people coming down on both sides of this case. To be honest with you, I might have seen this case differently before taking an ethics class in seminary and before experiencing the slow deaths of my own parents. The thing is, it’s one thing to watch someone who has lived a full life die, it’s another thing to watch someone who is seemingly in the prime of their life experience a slow, painful, and possibly humiliating death. Well, at least that’s what we’re supposed to believe.
It’s not easy to watch someone you love dying slowly. Just because you know what’s coming doesn’t make it any easier. Sure, unlike sudden deaths, you have time to prepare yourself as best as you can, but that process is still a difficult one and no amount of preparation can stop you from feeling the pain, loss, and grief of someone being gone.
In Brittany Maynard’s case, it would seem to be a textbook tragedy. She was in the prime of her life, newly married, and seemingly healthy. How could this possibly be? How could her husband of one year simply stand by and watch her body begin to crumble?
I’m not naïve enough to think that I could speculate what I would have done had I been in the same position as Maynard. Speculating one’s possible reactions to a situation which hasn’t been personally experienced can be dangerous.
I can remember a car ride with my mom as we went from doctor’s appointment to doctor’s appointment, trying to determine the best course of action. I remember the tears streaming down her face as I held her hand. I remember her whispering, “I’m scared” to me as I sat there feeling that roles had seriously reversed, that the one who had been such a source of strength and comfort for me was now looking to me to provide some strength and comfort to her.
I can’t imagine how “watched” my mom felt as she was expected to process all of this information and make decisions all at the same time. I know that she was scared. I know that she was uncertain. I know how the whole thing played out.
I also know where my mom put her hope. I know that she didn’t believe that death was the end, and I’m right there with her. I know that even though she had temporarily hoped in doctors and medicines and her body, she had a greater hope that went far beyond just those things.
I don’t know what Brittany Maynard put her hope in. I know that she had more hope in the pills that she would eventually take to bring her life to an end than she had in the doctors who were treating her. It seems somewhat ironic to me, that she would put so much trust in those pills and the fact that they had been prescribed by the very doctors who claimed that they couldn’t treat her.
I don’t know what would have happened had Maynard not taken those pills. I don’t know how much she would have suffered. I don’t know how much dignity that she would have lost had she made the decision to not end her life. I don’t know how her husband and family would have dealt with it all. I won’t even speculate.
Here’s what I do know though. I do know that there have been times when things that seemed so certain to people became incredibly uncertain when things didn’t turn out the way they thought that they would. I know that there have been people who have been handed diagnoses that seemed bleak and irreversible who are still around. I know that despite the certain diagnosis that they received, those “certain” doctors were scratching their heads and wondering how their certainty changed to uncertainty when the impossible took place. I’m not saying that Brittany Maynard would have been healed, but it’s a possibility.
But even if she hadn’t been healed, is it possible that there could have another outcome? Is it possible that her bravery could have been shown through her facing of uncertainty and impossible odds? Is it possible that there might have been another way? I honestly don’t know, and like I said before, it’s probably not worth speculating, but I certainly would like to think that there was a better way.