I have been a hospice nurse for over seventeen years and have witnessed many deaths and have had the great privilege of being present to individuals and their families at this most vulnerable time. I have seen people die gracefully and I have seen people suffer greatly. I have seen children, young mothers and grandparents die. I have seen patients lose little by little any independence they may have once had. I have seen choices regarding their care and options diminish as they lose function of their body and minds.
This article is not an attempt to get you to see things my way or to use religion as a means to justify my stand, as many articles do today (shame on them!). This article is an attempt to urge you to open your heart and experience human compassion and understanding. To see both sides, if you will, in order to create space for understanding and communication. This writing was sparked by the vaticans recent stance that Brittany Maynard's act of suicide was "reprehensible" and "a sin". I am not a political person nor do I write about or discuss my religious beliefs, however, I feel betrayed by the spiritual leaders for their ignorant words.
Many people believe that something greater than us has placed us here and that only that being has the right to take us from this place. If this is the case, we must also agree that that same being has given us the intelligence to create medicines and to prolong life with treatments developed through that intelligence.
In looking at quality of life, we must see it as a gray area, as we all have different standards. What do we think of the 90 year old man whose wife and friends have died before him and whose children no longer speak to him due to his alcoholism? He may believe that he has great quality of life as he cares for and feeds his little dog...the only living being who truly cares for the man. What of the elderly woman who has many friends and family surrounding her, but has lost control of her bowels and bladder and therefore feels her life is over and every day is torment as her family assists her with physical needs. The young mother who suffers in pain, as she does not want to take the medicine to relieve it so that she can experience every moment she can with her small children and spouse. The young child who bravely attends her last school play, knowing in her heart that she has little time to live. I have witnessed these situations and can tell you it is not my right or yours to judge their quality of life. It is not our right to project our judgement onto a situation we ourselves are not experiencing.
If the elderly woman I referenced above gets so depressed that she loses her desire to eat, is she attempting suicide? If the young mother decides to take morphine to soothe her pain and it inadvertently stops her breathing...is it suicide? If doctors and family members decide that the suffering is too great and decide to use palliative sedation...is it assisted suicide as the breathing muscles relax and the heart stops? In initiating CPR to an elderly person, who seemingly has no quality of life and severe illness, are we not manipulating the natural plan of the universe?
My point here is that we are always trying to control our health outcomes. We have been given free will and the ability to make choices. We can choose certain treatment and we can choose palliative care and hospice. Only we can decide our experience of quality of life. Until you have experienced those who are dying (and I do not mean a close relative or friend), you cannot think that you know better than the person experiencing death.
Many people appear to be suffering greatly at the end of life and it is not physical, it is spiritual. I have seen people experience weeks of seemingly unexplained pain...A letting go of sorts only to have a few very peaceful days before they die. Only they know what those last peaceful days mean. What of the middle aged man who needs to apologize to his son in order to free them both? Should he choose to die before having that opportunity there is great loss in that relationship and the lives around them.
All of us experience pain and suffering, whether living or dying. As individuals we can choose how we integrate that pain and suffering into our lives. In choosing to see all individuals as part of a whole, we need to look at this issue in an honest, compassionate way that elicits a voice of reason, not a voice of judgement. Because of my experiences as a hospice nurse, a mother, a yogi and a human being, I cannot easily place judgement on another for a decision they make through their personal experience. When looking at these very serious life issues, we must have open hearts and minds in order to fully embrace understanding of these unique life and death issues.