Guest post by Kristina Hernandez, Director of Communications for SFLA
Death is inevitable. For some, it comes way too soon and for people like Brittany Maynard, it was a deliberate choice. And those of us left behind often are left to pick up the remnants of our lives and somehow move on.
For myself, it was the death of my own mother that rocked my world to the core. I was 26
years old and she was my best friend. She told me she had breast cancer when we were in a beautiful hotel room in Florence, Italy while she was visiting me while I was studying abroad five years before. I was shocked but my mom said this was only going to make her live her life even better, with more passion and adventure. She was determined that even if the disease took her life, she wasn’t going down without a fight – and she didn’t.
For the next five years she fought. And we – my dad and my two younger brothers – fought with her. Her oncologist went to conferences all over the country to find new advances in chemotherapy. Her hair stylist found my mom a human hair wig that she made into a beautiful updo so my mom could look gorgeous at my brother’s wedding. She convinced my dad (who adamantly hated traveling) to travel to Rome for three weeks when my youngest brother was studying abroad and where we had the time of our lives together. Two weeks before her death, my whole family went together to South Bend, Indiana to watch the Fighting Irish take on Stanford. We all tailgated at my brothers’ alma mater and my dad pushed her in a wheelchair into the stadium for the last time. It was also the last time we were all together and she was lucid.
My mom was a true fighter to the very end and she passed on her strength to her family. But it wasn’t pretty. I know I never saw the worst of it. It was my dad who bore the brunt of her illness. He was the one she cried to when she knew she’d never see her grandchildren. He was the one who had to cover the mirrors because she couldn’t bear to look at her bald head. He was one who knew he would be losing the love of his life. Yet he still fought alongside her to the very end because life is always worth fighting for.
The last week of her life was the hardest thing I had ever had to go through. Her liver was failing and her body was shutting down. I was the one designated to give her the medication needed to alleviate her pain. It was nearly unbearable to watch her – and my own family members– suffer. Every day I was wondering if was going to be the end. Finally she passed away on Sunday morning with my dad holding her hand.
Suffering. As a Catholic Christian, I have been taught that suffering can be redemptive if we unite ourselves to Christ. He suffered. His mother and his friends suffered watching him die for us. In the midst of suffering, and in the grief afterwards, it is hard to do anything else but just get through each day. For me, prayer was essential to making it through the entirety of my mom’s disease and suffering. My mom’s disease and ultimate death was an opportunity to deepen my faith – it was either that or leave it entirely – and try to become holier. As Christians we are called to suffer. That scares me honestly. I tend to shy away from things that hurt. Isn’t that human nature though?
What Brittany Maynard did – ending her own life – was because she didn’t want to suffer, a natural human reaction. She didn’t want her family to suffer. Her own story is heartbreaking. Because of a deadly disease she was robbed of her life, robbed of the opportunity to be a mom, and robbed of so many of her dreams.
She said she was going to die anyways so why not choose how and when? But we are all going to die someday, many of us not on our own terms. Our life is a gift. All human lives are gifts to be treasured, not killed, even because of our own deliberate choices.
While I feel empathy and compassion for Brittany and her family, I can’t agree with what she did nor what her doctor did.
Where does the “Death with Dignity” movement go from here? Who decides who gets to die or live? Brittany decided when she wanted to die but others with terminal illnesses may not. What if it is cost prohibitive for a health insurance company to prolong the life for someone with Brittany’s disease, or a child with a severe handicap, or an elderly patient with multiple medical issues, or even an unborn baby’s terminal diagnosis? Who runs our healthcare system now? The government.
At some point it is going to be in the government’s best natural interest to stop paying for life-prolonging drugs and care for someone who is terminally ill. Actually it is already happening. Health insurance companies have sent letters to terminally ill patients that state that they will pay for the drugs necessary to euthanize them but won’t pay for the drugs to prolong their lives.
The pro-choice movement has been using this “death with dignity” story for a long time to justify late-term abortions. They believe it is more dignified to terminate the life of a baby who has a terminal illness than to allow the child to be born. Remember Baby Shane, whose parents completed a bucket list for him while his mother was still pregnant because he was diagnosed with a terminal illness in utero? That was a beautiful story but only happened because the parents showed that baby Shane had inherent dignity, something that pro-choicers deny to unborn babies on a daily basis.
I’m so sad for Brittany and for her family. But I’m also sad for all those families and individuals suffering with the diagnosis of terminal illnesses. While it is a death sentence, it doesn’t have to be the end of the lives of everyone involved. It was in those last five years of my mom’s life that she perhaps taught myself and my family what is means to make the most of life and the gifts that we all have been given.
Life is the most precious gift we have and we should protect and honor it all the days of our lives, no matter how short.