I always find it interesting that the euthanasia debate pops up in the media quite regularly, but that we don’t ever seem to get anywhere with passing a law about it. Perhaps the day will come when that changes, but until then, it means that individuals and their families (and often the medical staff) are left in a legal limbo, where euthanasia or assisted suicide happens everyday, but behind closed doors, and without a broader conversation.
Some might argue that a broader conversation is unnecessary, and that a conversation about one’s death is something private, to be agreed upon between family members or those closest, and that the rest of society has no business to get involved, However, we strive to improve the outcomes of birth all the time, ensuring that babies receive the best beginning possible, and that parents are adequately prepared and cared for, leading up to the event, and in its aftermath. Should we not also do the same for death? In our culture, we celebrate birth: a new life, such anticipation of potential. But death — which is just as significant a life event — is rarely discussed, let alone celebrated.
Going into each of my Offspring’s births, I had a plan which I shared with the Handsome Sidekick and the midwives. I told them what intervention I wanted, how I wished to hold the baby once she or he was born, who I wanted in the room. All were matters which I researched to attempt to provide the best beginning for my child (and for me). Of course, birth plans are just a plan, and nothing is set in stone. But the important thing is that I planned for this event, taking into account my needs, and those of my family.
I haven’t even considered a plan for my death. Unlike a birth, a death is (usually) far harder to plan. However, it is inevitable, and while we cannot imagine every eventuality, it is still important to have a plan. Do I want to donate my organs, if possible? What kind of intervention would I want, in the case of a severe accident, for example, which might leave me brain dead? What kind of funeral would I like?
When we fail to discuss death, we’re going into it unprepared. Therefore, it’s sure to be a greater shock, a greater disruption, because we try to ignore it and therefore don’t accept it. We’re so hellbent on living a long and healthy life that we ignore the fact that one day, it will come to an end. Shouldn’t that end be something for which we are ready?
This has been on my mind recently because I read two different accounts of a family which is dealing with the illness and potential death of their young child, Oshin. The first report describes how the parents’ refusal to allow their son to receive chemotherapy has been overruled by a judge, meaning the child has had to recently begin treatment. On reading this, I wondered whether there were religious reasons for their withholding treatment. This idea was reinforced by the last picture in the article — that of the little boy facing the camera, eyes closed and hands clasped in prayer.
But the second story was different. A longer article, it described how the parents had done a lot of their own research and were worried about the long term effects of chemo- and radiotherapy on Oshin. Oshin was also very upset by the intensive medical intervention, meaning that the treatment was a distressing experience, aside from the physical side effects. The parents argued that at best, Oshin’s prognosis was 50-60%, and given what trauma he had already had to endure, they wanted the option of palliative care, to simply allow him to enjoy as much as possible the rest of his life — however short that may be.
This is not an easy situation — a child’s life and health is at stake. But when I read their story, I found myself empathising with the parents and this family, even as I can understand the motivations of the doctors and the court involved. Still, I can’t help wondering if it is our reluctance to discuss death — to focus only on life — which leads us to situations where we want to pursue medical treatment, even at the cost of quality of life. Not just in this case, but in many, many others. As tragic as it is to lose someone, especially to the ravages of a terrible disease, it is also a terrible pity to always rail against death. We don’t need to embrace it — it is an ending, and endings can be sad. Yet we do need to accept it, so that we can plan and discuss, and perhaps feel like we have an element of control. In this way, death comes not as an unwelcome shock, rather it is a coda, a full stop, concluding our life story, and we can perhaps feel a measure of completeness because of that.