We had been close friends for twelve years, and I was blessed to be with him as the doctor helped him die. Growing stiffer and frailer over the last year or so, he had still enjoyed life, including a short walk we’d taken just a few days before, with him happily chasing down a ball I’d thrown out of reach.
He suddenly got worse. The ER doctor guessed he had pancreatic cancer and probably other serious problems as well. Intensive medical treatment would hurt a lot and might do no good at all. At most he’d have a couple more years to live, and he’d live those in pain. He gained no benefit from living longer. I held his head as the doctor gave him the drugs that stopped his heart.
He Died with Dignity
He died with dignity, and that was beautiful to see despite the pain I felt. I’m describing the death of my dog Moby, whose last hours I wrote about here aleteia.org/2017/11/15/253000/ . He had been a great dog and I couldn’t let him suffer till his natural end. He might have taken days or weeks to die. Love for the poor animal required I let him die quickly, easily, without suffering. And I wanted to be with him when he died.
I’d seen my father (www.firstthings.com/article/2011/03/real-death-real-dignity), my mother, and my sister (aleteia.org/2016/09/15/my-sister-died-and-i-have-no-lessons-but-that-god-stays-with-us/) die. None died with what people mean when they talk about “death with dignity.” They didn’t die at the time of their choosing, with all the people they would have chosen around them, with the words and ceremony they designed. They didn’t die still feeling healthy and without the humiliating medical interventions that come with dying. They didn’t die in control of everything.
As I wrote about my father’s death, “It is not dignified to be undressed and dressed by cheerful young women the age of your granddaughter. It is not dignified to waste away, to lose the ability to speak, to eat, to drink. It is not dignified for your children and grandchildren to see you that way. It is not dignified to die when death takes you and not when you choose.”
They did die with dignity, understood differently. My father’s death was not an easy one for him, a reserved man of old-fashioned solemnity. Yet he faced it, and faced it down. “There is,” I wrote, “a great—an eternal—dignity in accepting whatever indignities you have to suffer to remain faithful to God and to do what He has given you to do. A man can be humiliated and yet noble, and the humiliations make the nobility all the more obvious.”
The Appealing Idea
Yet. But. I wrote that almost seven years ago, and still believe it, but I also see much better now how appealing is the popular idea of dying with dignity. Since he died, I’ve seen my mother die, then my sister, and now my dog. The three human deaths were messy, difficult, inelegant. My dog died much more cleanly, simply, more artistically and elegantly, than they. He didn’t keep suffering, he didn’t have to feel helpless as he declined, he didn’t have to wait.
I didn’t really see how appealing this was before. I could see that people might be so afraid of dying painfully they’d choose to die early. I could see that they might want to choose the day when they’d suffer the inevitable. Most of us would feel something of that were we to be dying as they were.
What I didn’t see before was how people might see a planned chosen death as a beautiful thing. For a long time, the poster boy for euthanasia was the extraordinarily creepy Jack Kevorkian. The Hemlock Society’s Derek Humphry was not much more attractive. Both preached “mercy killing” and “assisted suicide” as a way of avoiding pain and the embarrassments that come with dying. They talked about “dignity,” but mainly as the negative state of not suffering indignity. They appealed mainly to fear.
Those of us who speak for life “from conception to natural death” www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/ need to understand how appealing “mercy killing” can be. We think of it as an act of fear, because its most notorious advocates usually present it that way. We urge courage and consolations, and stress the ways palliative care can save the dying from pain.
Those answers might satisfy the dying if they only feared dying. But they won’t satisfy the dying who feel their chosen death would be a positive good. Not an act of escape, but an appropriate way of rounding out their life, of going out cleanly, simply, artistically, elegantly. I felt that way holding Moby’s head on the floor of Exam Room # 2, and what I felt about a dog a man might feel about himself, or another person.
This complicates our work. We would say that a man is not a dog. What was beautiful for Moby would have been a horror for my parents or my sister. As human beings with human dignity, their lives have meaning we cannot cut short.
“Yes, I agree!” will say the one who wants to die with dignity, or the one who wants to help someone else die with dignity. They’ll argue that part of our dignity is our human ability to choose the time and the way we die. We are rational creatures and choosing when to die is one of the highest expressions of that reason. We are most human when we freely choose to let go of life. We are less human when we cling to life. That’s what they will say, and they’ll say it sincerely.
To that there is no simple counter-claim they, or more crucially those who don’t know what to do, will find convincing. What to do about this, I don’t know.