Friday, September 21, 2012

Going Gently Into That Good Night | Narratively

If you're dying and don't care to wait around for death, you can always book your own appointment. One simple way to do this would be to stop eating and drinking; another would be to stop life-sustaining medicine or devices. Assuming you can decide on your own, both of these methods are good and kosher as far as the law goes. A third approach, however, ventures into a grayer area of legal and ethical terrain—quaffing a lethal cocktail. In the business of ending your life, the means matter a lot more than the final result.

These were three things my mother, Ann Krieger, was pondering when she reached the final leg of her terminal illness last year, a month before Mother's Day. After several years of fighting colon cancer, her doctor broke the news that the cancer had spread and the treatment was no longer working. There was no more they could do.

"You've got months, not weeks," he said.

"What should I do?" she asked. "Should I end it now?"

"No," he said. "You don't want to do that."

Actually, my mother kind of did, but the doctor referred her to hospice and gave her information about palliative care, a mode of treatment that relieves the pain of patients with serious illnesses. But in my mother's case, the physical distress was less acute than the existential. Coming to terms with the fact that you're going to die is elusive. For some people, like her, an attempt to manage the logistics could make it seem more doable. She and my father had given this some thought and had very specific ideas about how they wanted their end-of-life matters handled.

Six years earlier, horrified by what was taking place with Terri Schiavo in Florida, they sat my sister and me down to give us instructions. Should it ever come down to it, my parents told us, they wanted no artificial resuscitation, experimental procedures, machines or IVs—none of that stuff. They just wanted us to make sure they would be allowed to die naturally. "The idea," my father explained to me recently, "is to be pain-free, comfortable and not go through a lot of unnecessary, costly and painful treatments which won't help anyway."

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