Is it Really Death with Dignity

The Washington Post carried an article on March 17, 2010 about a new book called “Imperfect Endings” written by a daughter, Zoe FitzGerald Carter, who helped her mother, Mary, die. Mary had been suffering with Parkinson’s Disease for 20 years and decided in 2000 that she would kill herself and she wanted her daughters to help. This book is about the last year of Mary’s life.

Other people mentioned in the article excerpt below are Guth, Zoe’s husband, and Sarah and “Katherine,” Zoe’s sisters.

Here are some excerpts from the article (click here to read the whole thing):

At a family Christmas celebration in 2000, Mary was still walking. But shortly after a series of painful writhing episodes (uncontrollable jerking and twisting common in Parkinson’s patients), she took to her bed, moving only to use the bathroom. Zoe was never sure whether movement had become too physically painful or just too emotionally exhausting, but either way it was around this time that the woman who had once strived to capture the perfect brogue started pursuing the perfect death.

… A volunteer from the Hemlock Society visited the house and suggested placing a bag over Mary’s head and having her inhale helium; a Dupont Circle doctor met with Mary and Zoe to prescribe the sedative Seconal after a consultation to assess Mary’s mindset. In a catch-22 twist of logic, he would provide a means to die only to someone who was not depressed.

“The scenario of her trying to choke down Seconal was horrifying, and the Hemlock Society was even worse,” Zoe says. She was horrified by the legal implications of assisting her mother — even tacit approval felt like too much — and she was horrified by the casual glibness with which her mother discussed dying.

… Her [Zoe] father had died in 1994; Guth’s had fallen seriously ill in 1995 before eventually passing away in 1998, which was only shortly before Mary began contemplating suicide. “We had seven years of losing parents,” Guth says. “How much time can you put into each process, and what are the consequences if you don’t?”

Zoe was horrified that her mother would no longer be living, or maybe “horrified” is not the right word.

She was sad.

“I didn’t understand why,” she says, “she didn’t want to stay alive and be my mother.”

… After months of discussion, Mary had decided to end her life not with helium or Seconal but by starvation. The family had been told she would die in a matter of days, but after a week her body was still strong, though she appeared smaller each day, wasting into nothingness. She suffered. She begged Zoe and Sarah — “Katherine” hadn’t come down after all — for their blessing to allow her to take morphine.

On a baking hot evening in the middle of July, Zoe, her husband and Sarah said goodbye at their mother’s bedside. To prevent themselves from being implicated in Mary’s death, they had decided not to be in the room when she actually ingested the drug.

Mary FitzGerald Carter died a few days after the night of morphine, on July 11, 2001. Her passing brought grief and peace, both in Zoe’s ongoing relationship with her mother and in her relationship with her sisters.

Do we fool ourselves to think that there is dignity in dying just because we choose the method by and the time at which we die? Is there really dignity in starving oneself to death (a painful and slow process)? Is there really dignity in putting a plastic bag over your head as your body reacts violently while you are suffocating yourself to death?

There is no inherent dignity in dying, no matter how it occurs. It is not natural. The fact that most of humanity resists and struggles against it to the end is evidence that God did not intend for death to be part of life; but because of sin, we do have disease and disability, and ultimately, physical death.

I cannot and will not speak to what the family went through that year, nor am I condemning them for the decisions they chose.  I have never personally experience that kind of despair and can’t imagine how overwhelming the conflicting thoughts and emotions must be.

But feelings lie, and that is why we all need to consider caregiving options for ourselves and for our loved ones before we find ourselves in the midst of the emotional maelstrom that comes with end-of-life decisions.