Apr 15, 201312:26 PMAfter Hours
with Jody Glynn Patrick
Calling all boomers: Let’s claim the right to die!
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I would guess that during the six years I worked as a crisis interventionist for a police department, I saw the very best and very worst death scenarios. Part of my responsibility was to do all of the death notifications for all shifts, which the officers gladly handed off. In that regard, I would make arrangements for an ambulance to be discreetly stationed nearby if I felt it might be necessary for a hysterical family member, and I knocked on the door wearing my uniform, a tie, and my (earned) police chaplain’s collar bars. However, before that knock, I already had viewed the body and arranged for any cleanup of it that was possible given the circumstances.
After notification of every possible member of the family as a group (children included; this wasn’t optional), I often brought one or more family members to a discreet room at a nearby hospital to reassure them that it was, in fact, their loved one who had died – a critical step in helping survivors recover. I helped make final arrangements, when asked, and attended every funeral, offering crisis follow-up grief counseling as requested by bereaved family members.
I can honestly say that the hardest deaths for survivors weren’t the freak accidents, though those were awful. The worst were suicides. The “if only” sparks that burned on in hearts forever. The unanswered questions and betrayals. The social tainting experience other family members then had to endure. The utter senselessness of it, especially when the victims were 19 or younger, or when they chose brutal methods of escape.
I’ve been present when a dead teenage boy was cut down from a tree and a teenage girl was lifted out of a bloody bathtub; I’ve cleaned brain matter off furniture before readmitting a newly grieving family member into her own bedroom, and cleaned the dashboard of a man’s truck because his friend blew his brains out in it that morning, and I didn’t want the burden of wiping away the evidence to fall on the truck owner. This is what crisis suicide looks like up close; no amount of mortician’s skill or makeup makes the death prettier to first responders.
And it took everything I knew, as a professional death and grief counselor, and every way I could reach out to help the families and friends begin to cope with “after.”
So it might surprise you to learn that I was a very staunch supporter of “Dr. Death” Jack Kevorkian and, in fact, an advocate for people’s right to choose the time and circumstances of their own death – with the caveat that they are proven to be of “sound mind” by a trained professional who would work only in that area of expertise, and so have amassed enough experience to recognize the occasional mentally ill orange sitting in a peck of apples.
Here’s why: I sat beside my stepfather’s bedside, holding his hand when he couldn’t bear the pain. I spent tearful hours tending to him while he pleaded with us to kill him. Wayne was only 54 years old during the last weeks of his futile battle with bone cancer. He lived without food and water for more days than we were assured was medically possible. He self-injected what should have been lethal doses of painkilling drugs into his own system at will, but his tolerances were even higher due to the progressions he’d already endured. Despite his best efforts to kill himself, he could only manage sporadic comas.
Hospice was a godsend to him and to us, but still, Wayne was reduced to a babbling, whimpering babyhood again – an 86-pound version of a formerly proud, 200-pound USAF career chief master sergeant.
My mother’s death was no kinder, to her or to us, as she, too, died of cancer at home. It was “sudden,” according to the doctor, who predicted three months to live instead of six weeks. But those six weeks were an eternity as we watched her crawl down the same road as her husband – her greatest fear after having taken care of him the year before. It was hardly the graceful, dignified death we wished for her, and in fact, it was a more brutal demise than we would ever have allowed a pet dog to suffer.
I know a woman today who is 90-plus years old who has outlived two of her children and two husbands. She has a great faith in eternity and the promise of reunion, and she desperately wants to die. “Thanks to doctors, my body has outlived my own soul, and I just want to go home and see my babies and my parents now,” she once told me, weeping pitifully.
If she could choose the time and method of her death, she would die at home in bed, not in a hospital, and it would be a day not associated with a family birthday or special event. She imagines her family gathered around her, with time to speak to each one privately for a minute or an hour, depending on her need. She imagines having control over who enters and who is barred, and of making her moments count. She would want, she says, to look at photo albums with her surviving daughter and see the smiles of better memories on her face – rather than the look of fierce determination to get through another day of wiping her mother’s … face. She doesn’t want to be a burden, weighted down with guilt. She wants her wings. Now.
People who believe only God should have dominion over life and death should abolish war and the sending of our children into the world with guns, prepared to take a life to preserve their own. They should step back from capital punishment. And if we have no right to end lives, what gives us the right to prolong them with artificial means? Ban medical intervention, if that is your platform.
I hope to die around the age of 90. I first set the goal at 58, to outlive my grandmother’s death age, and then at 66, to outlive my mother’s death age (she had thumbed convention to marry a younger, “frisky” man, if you noticed that Wayne died younger). I’ve outlived my younger siblings already, so 90 would be the same as reaching about 120 years of age for other folks. And for me, it would be enough.
I, too, want to die in the manner that my friend described. I’d like the chance to tie up loose ends, to tell my husband, children, and grandchildren the most special memories that would always live on because we had made them together, and I’d like to end it on a day the sun was shining, a late spring afternoon with the door open, with a sweet final kiss and the sound of Aaron Neville singing “The Lord’s Prayer” like an angel in the background. (Continued)