The Right to Die

On November 8th, 2016, the citizens of Colorado had an important decision to make. In addition to voting for the next president of the United States, people in Colorado had to vote on whether or not to legalize death with dignity.

Some of you may be asking, “What exactly is death with dignity?” and in three words, death with dignity can be described as the “right to die.” The death with dignity movement, also known as the right to die movement, advocates for the legalization of physician-assisted death for terminally ill patients and the elderly. If you’re still having a hard time understanding what I’m talking about, think of when you put your dog (or any other pet for that matter) “to sleep,” it’s like that but for people.

With this topic comes controversy. Advocates for physician-assisted death argue that often patients want the right to choose when to die because they do not want to needlessly suffer after expending all other options. Opponents argue that physician-assisted death is morally wrong and creates opportunities for abuse and fraud, among other things.

Before I tell you my personal stance on the right to die movement, you will need some background. It was the evening of May 22nd of 2015. My mother and father entered my room to tell me that if I wanted to see my grandmother, I should do it then because they didn’t have confidence she would make it through the night. I remember getting up and throwing some clothes on because I had switched into my pajamas to take my regularly scheduled nap after school. For all intents and purposes, until that moment, it was a normal day.

My father and I made the 15 minute drive to Westminster Canterbury to see her. The car was quiet except for the occasional question from me about what had happened. I had known she had been on oxygen and several different medications for a while but to me she always seemed to be the picture of health. At 94 years old my grandmother, Marjorie, was vibrant, sassy, and willing to put my father in his place. I was waiting to see her celebrate her 100th birthday. But here I was, in the car going to see her because she was dying.

Walking into Westminster Canterbury, I told myself I wouldn’t cry, that I would be strong because she wouldn’t want to see me sad. I held my father’s hand as I walked into the room we had entered many times before. I held onto my promise, until I saw her. In the bed was my grandmother, frail and face gaunt, so unlike the woman I was accustomed to. If I focus, I can still hear her labored breaths ringing in my ears.

I approached her bed and took her hand in mine. I held it while I told her “I love you” over and over again willing her eyes to open, praying to God not to take her. But nothing happened. Eventually I let go of her hand so my father could say goodbye. He was crying. This was only the second time I’ve seen him cry, even to this day. The first time was when his father died.

My father took me home and later my parents went back to be with my grandmother as she died. It was awful. I went to sleep still praying that she would be alive in the morning. Hoping against hope I’d get to hear her say that I’ve grown up too fast, but it wasn’t destined to be so. She died in the middle of the night. I will always remember her face as she lay there dying. She looked so tired, so defeated.

A word I hardly, if ever, associated with my grandmother was defeat. As a child, my grandmother had been a tomboy. She loved to take her gun and shoot snakes in her free time when she was a teenager. She survived both the Great Depression and World War II and was a navy wife with 4 children. She was a constant figure in her church, the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, of which she was a charter member. She was a Sunday School teacher for many years and volunteered weekly at the Luther Manor Assisted Living and Lake Taylor Transitional Care Hospital. In addition, she was a proud member of the VBPD, serving as a crossing guard until she was 82. She only moved into Westminster after my grandfather died in 2000 and she didn’t stop driving herself places until she was in her early 90’s.

My grandmother was a strong woman and seeing her dying before my very eyes was incredibly painful. As I lay here crying in my bed at almost 2:00 AM writing this piece, I understand why some people want to die with dignity. My grandmother and I would have butted heads about this but in my eyes, and the eyes of many other people around the world, death with dignity is not about choosing to die because you don’t want to fight to live. What death with dignity is, is choosing to die once you have tried your hardest to live, in order to spare yourself and others needless suffering.

Those who want to end their lives through physician-assisted death do not simply wish to give up. Most of these people have expended all other options, and they are still dying. As these diseases ravage their bodies, whether it be age or some terminal illness, these people slowly wither away into shadows of their former selves. Once proud men and women are unable to perform basic human functions as their bodies shut down. For these people, this is the ultimate humiliation and I watched this happen slowly to my grandmother.

Often times these patients want to spare their loved ones of their painful spiral towards death. Rebecca VanWormer is one such example. She shared her story online to advocate for the passing of death with dignity legislature. Rebecca is a survivor of breast and liver cancer but now, after all her treatments, is dying of brain cancer.

Rebecca’s father died in August of 2015 and Rebecca wants to spare her husband the pain of caring for her in her final months.

“I saw what he went through in hospice and what my mother went through as his caregiver. I don’t want that for me and my husband. I don’t want to be in pain for several months or to have someone else clean up after me if I am unable to get to the bathroom and soil myself. I don’t want the final memories my husband has of me to be this blind, deaf, mute, body of flesh who can’t even feed herself.”

At the end of their lives, people should have the right to choose how they want to die. For a man of once endless pride to degenerate into a frail man who can no longer perform the most basic of human functions without aid is torture. Colorado has taken the first of many steps to allow its citizens to retain their dignity until their dying breath. It is time for other states to follow its lead. For centuries people have fought, and continue to fight, for the right to life, but now it is time to fight for the right to die.