Both life and death have been in the news of late – the Queen’s long life and passing, a renewed debate on when life begins, and the fragile life of people around the world suffering from war, famine, and migration.
As for death, the inevitable bookend no matter what species, we don’t like to talk about it. And when it does come, we can still be shocked.
“Little by little, cats become the soul of the house.” ~ Jean Cocteau
Love and Loss – Another Set of Bookends
In early July, we lost our beloved cat Violet after decades of sharing our lives. Jean Cocteau was right about our time with her.
By chance, on the day of Violet’s passing, I started reading Amy Bloom’s new book – In Love: A Memoir of Love and Loss. She gives readers an intimate look into her marriage with husband Brian, his rapid mental decline, and the choice he made to end his life early. He never wavered from this decision.
Amy searched for a way to aide him in his decision and shares the list all of the possibilities with readers. Representative of where we are these days, she was advised to use a library’s computer to search for methods and potential organizations. Eventually, she learned about Dignitas* in Zurich, Switzerland. Here is some of what she discovered:
As an American, Dignitas was the only place Brian could go for a medical assist. The standard in the US has these requirements: you have to be certifiably terminally ill with no more than six months to live. This is true for all nine right-to-die states plus the District of Columbia.
“These laws are pretty much the same and are intentionally eye-of-the-needle,” Amy writes. “In some states you have to get yourself into a pharmacy to purchase your lethal prescription; assistance in any way is illegal. People who do wish to end their lives and shorten their period of great suffering and loss – these people are out of luck in the US.” Her search highlights the question of why, with significant safeguards, Brian couldn’t have died at home.
James Bopp, the general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee would vehemently disagree with Amy and Brian’s decision. Bopp has been a force to outlaw all abortion as well as medically-assisted death, according to a recent article in Kaiser Health News. “Every individual human has inherent value and is sacred. The government has the duty to protect that life,” according to Bopp.
I leave you to decide what you think of Bopp and his mission.
After finishing her book and adjusting to the absence of Violet, I was left with troubling inconsistencies:
- When life begins depends on where you live and what you believe.
- When is taking a life acceptable? It evidently depends on your species.
- Does our government have a sacred duty to protect all life and is it doing so?
We approve of euthanizing unadopted animals at various shelters. We go further and perform all manner of lab experiments searching for cures and for less noble inquiries.
We conduct drug and other trials and experiments (sometimes harmful and sometimes fatal) on human beings without their understanding or permission. We tend to prefer a small, poor and/or African country as well as having a long disgraceful history here at home.
We knowingly poison water, land, and air in the name of _________ industry, just fill in the blank.
On the world stage of endless wars and of late a potential nuclear extinction, we lead all other nations in supplying arms that are rarely, if ever, used to create peace.
How is that sacred duty so easily abandoned for money and power?
Closer to Home
For several years I worked as a grant writer for a local rehabilitation, long-term, and memory-care facility. It was a compassionate, well-run, non-profit organization, with local people on the board of directors, several had parents there as residents.
The few times I visited the memory care unit, I wondered – would the (mostly) women staring into space have chosen this as their end of life? Would their adult children choose to conclude theirs in a facility rather than a well-managed system that allowed them to leave on their own terms?
Only questions – no answers.
At the time, my mother was in her early nineties and viewed where I worked as a kind of earthly hell. “Just shoot me before you stick me in one of those places,” she said. Setting her request aside – I wasn’t interested in facing a murder charge – the end-of-life question, including my mother’s and my own, hovered in the background. She was one of the lucky ones and died at home.
The Unknown Future
When Violet needed help passing away, our compassionate veterinarian was there for her and for us. This was also true for Amy’s and Brian’s experience at Dignitas. We shared Amy’s shock of death – you just want them back and have to eventually yield to the reality that they are gone.
All of this has caused me to think again about my own life and what I want as it will inevitably come to a close. Like my mother, I fear becoming a burden to my family, to lose the pleasure of writing and walking, but also have the grace to accept that something or nothing will be waiting for me when I too pass. I’m in the “surprise me” group.
If I’m not “up there” hanging out with those I love plus Leonard Cohen, then whatever memories my daughters have of me will have to be enough. As it is for us with Violet.
Next on my library list is a new book by Pema Chodron – How We Live Is How We Die.
She shares her well-regarded wisdom for working with the flow of life – learning to live with ease, joy, and compassion. I can’t wait to read it. And to apply what I can to the rest of my own valuable life. Thanks for letting me ponder the bigger questions that are pressing in these troubled times and invite you to join me in making every day count in small and sometimes larger ways.
*There is a thorough screening process at Dignitas and a basic cost of $10,000.
Global arms exports chart is from statista.com – https://www.statista.com/
Photo credits: the future – drew-beamer, the lotus blossom – nong-v., Yin yang symbol – hrustall
I think this opening line from “Tis a Fearful Thing” by Yehuda HaLevi speaks to love and loss:
“Tis a fearful thing to love what death can touch. . . Tis a human thing, love, a holy thing, to love what death has touched.”
Barbara, you point to the serious failing of our present laws allowing assisted suicide. It’s a problem few of us can have avoided thinking about. There is, of course, the option of refusing food and drink, but it’s harder to accomplish than one might think. You need help in doing it without great discomfort, and it may take you several weeks to die.
The whole idea that suicide is a sin seems strange to me. We have no say about being born, but that shouldn’t stop us from deciding when we have lived long enough.
Men tend to make the laws in this country. End of life decisions and abortion might have different legal consequences if 1) men outlived their wives more often, and 2) men were able to get pregnant.
By the way, that group hanging out with Leonard Cohen must be a pretty full room, I hope you can find a seat! Let’s agree to save one for each other. I’m also going to check in with the Rumi bunch, somewhere in that field where wrong-doing and right-doing don’t matter.
It’s a deal Robert – on the seat with Leonard’s crowd but brilliant alternative is the Rumi room – another possibility for who knows whether it is good or it is bad. Great to have your comments.
Dear Barbara, I adore your wisdom and candor. This subject is such a great one and so badly needed right now as all you “Boomers” face your mortality! Being in my 90s, I am a few laps ahead of you’all.
We UUs are doing a zoom discussion group using q book by Connie Zweig entitled The Inner Work of Age: Shifting from Role to Soul. It’s about how we deal with this last period of our lives which, of course, includes dying. Get it! You will love it.
Thanks, as always for sharing your thoughts about the post. I’ll put the book on my to-read list and thanks for the recommendation for other readers of the post as well.
In your 90s now – lucky for us to have you present in our lives as a present!