Dying naturally is NOT undignified: What we can learn from Brittany Maynard

This is one of those blog posts where I’ve written the first sentence about thirteen different times and I’ve deleted it just as many times. Here goes sentence number fourteen.

I think it’s because deep down inside I dread talking about something that bothers me, even when the rest of the country stands as advocates. I sometimes worry about hurting families or saying something that will be misconstrued as, “Well, that blogger is insensitive.”

Because, in all honesty, this is a sensitive subject. In all honesty, it broke my heart just as much as those who agreed with her decision. Brittany Maynard has been the topic of debate for some time, and just last weekend she decided to go through with her decision to take her own life after she was given the grim diagnosis of a rare form of brain cancer. Death would be slow and painful, doctors said, so she packed up and moved to Oregon and decided to use the “Death with Dignity” law.

brittanymaynard

Her story is a painful one. And it brings me back to just last year. Around this time last year my Dad had just begun hospice. His diagnosis was just as grim as Brittany’s. I will never EVER forget the sound of his voice. The way it had changed. The coolness of his veiny hands and the sunken dips of his eyes. I won’t forget the doctors telling us it would be slow and painful. And I won’t forget dad nodding as they said it, telling us with confidence that’d it all be ok.

Towards the end, just like Brittany feared with her own death, my Dad lost touch of the world. The things we saw and the way we’d muffle our tears as we assured him we were close was anything BUT the character of my Dad. But even then–my Dad was never undignified.

And that’s what brings me to the point of why I’m writing. “Death with Dignity” implies that dying by the hand of cancer or another fatal disease lacks honor. It implies that people like my dad–who get to the point where clothes bother them and memories of fishing when they were twelve become “reality” and their children do what they can to clean up the mess in the bed sheets–suddenly rid themselves of the dignity they once had. And that infuriates me. Death is not undignified. And neither is suffering.

hospital bed with dad

I sometimes lay awake at night thinking of the fear that my Dad must have had during those moments when we were asleep around his bed but he just watched the hands of a dying clock. I can’t imagine the finality he must’ve felt. The terror of what it might feel like when his heart decides to stop. And with Brittany, I can’t imagine it either. It’s a subject that I’ll never grasp unless it’s my turn.

But even still. There are thousands–millions–of people who live out each second every day. Millions of people who suffer and still thank God for every day that they wake up and see the faces of their children. There are countless souls who get handed a fate that would make anyone’s heart weak, but they face it with dignity and grace. Not one of them is undignified. Not for a second.

kissy

I feel uncomfortable saying that Brittany chose wrong. Even though my religious background and my discomfort with “suicide worship” makes me want to say that, I sift through the pictures of this beautiful girl and can’t help but swallow my blunt opinion because I realize that it wasn’t an easy decision. And I realize that her family is hurting. Her husband is a widower. Her travel plans are no more. And that is enough to keep me quiet about her particular case and whether she chose right or wrong, regardless of everything.

But within a country that cries out for everything to be on our own terms, I can’t help but stand apart. It’s my body we hear during abortion debates …it’s my own life to take we hear with Death with Dignity…it’s my life to live and my choice who I love we hear with civil rights cases. And despite my opinions on any of these things, I can’t help but notice a common thread. We want to take the reins. We’re tired of life–or God for that matter–dictating what happens to us or what turns in the road will be up ahead. We want to set the terms. We want our dignity.

death with dignity

And I feel like we’re forgetting where true dignity comes from. Dignity isn’t maintaining a beautiful face and living a life free of pain and free of shame. Dignity is trudging through the muck of life, dirt smeared on your face and sins heaped like piles at your feet, and still carrying on and looking up. Dignity is facing it all head on and deciding it’s still a beautiful life. It’s still worth living. Dignity is having the respect for yourself, and for others, that it takes to carry on despite the fear or the embarrassment or the lack of control.

And looking back, seeing my Dad’s blue eyes shoot up to the corner of the ceiling as he took his final breath, I can say without a doubt that I’ve never seen a man with more dignity.

Life is hard. Cancer sucks. Mourning is—well, there might not be a word to describe it. But we face it every day because that’s what we’re here to do. The Savior never said it’d be easy. In fact, he felt it all for us long before we were here and he bled and cried and begged for relief. We are not exempt.

I pray for Brittany’s family and I have cried over her story. Such a beautiful girl with a trial that would overwhelm anyone. I pray for comfort and love and peace in that home.

brittanymaynard3

But I also pray for our country–and for our world even–to reevaluate.

In the moments beyond our control we learn about endurance. Love. Bravery in the face of fear. And faith. We learn that death is a moment beyond our choosing, but the eternity afterwards has everything to do with what we choose while we’re here.

That choice is a life well lived.

That choice is dignified.

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42 thoughts on “Dying naturally is NOT undignified: What we can learn from Brittany Maynard

  1. Kayla, as an avid reader and someone who respects you, I was interested to see what you had to say about this topic. This is one that, though I am a Christian, I have been on the fence about. I have had this debate with people I know and they have not been able to say what you did without harshness and the connotation of judging. I think that makes all the difference. It is not that I agree with Brittany Maynard. But I’m not in her shoes. However, I think you said the most important thing: our body is not ours. Our body belongs to God. A situation like this would truly test you when you say, “Thy will be done”. It would be tough. But ultimately your suffering is part of God’s plan. His unique plan for YOUR life. And we have to realize that our job is not God’s job. Thank you for this.

  2. I feel like you just said exactly what I have been wanting to say about this particular subject, and you have said it well. I have so much respect for you for posting this and expressing your thoughts. Thank you for being brave enough to post this. XO

  3. Like you Kayla, I find it very hard to find fault with Brittany’s decision. In fact I have gone back and forth in my own mind about how I would feel about it for myself if or when something like this happens to me. But, I have appreciated very much your thoughts and reminders of the Savior’s part in all of this.. I would like to add a few of my thoughts… I think that those who are the survivors, the family and friends, inspite of the pain and sorrow we feel, do gain something by witnessing and sharing in this most sad of experiences. We gain a sense of humanity, of compassion, of appreciation for life; ours as well as others. We gain a testimony of the passing of the human spirit from mortal life to immortal life. The experience gives us reason to pause and ponder our own life and what our purpose is in life; and what we can and should be doing better with the time we have remaining. I think that witnessing the natural, sometimes “slower” process of dying gives us time to adjust to the loss of the loved one. And, as you have said, it leaves the final outcome up to God, which I believe is as it should be. And, he does not leave us, including the dying loved one, with nothing in return. Everyone receives blessings and tender mercies from the experience that will bring us closer to him….. Thanks for this outlet to express my feelings… I too have mourned for Brittany and until now really hadn’t seen a way to express myself about it…

  4. Kayla, Well said, as always. This is such a troubling topic. You handled it with kindness and grace — with dignity, if you will. Thank you.

  5. Kayla, your words are well said and sensitive to (both) sides of the “Death With Dignity” issue. I also pray for Brittany’s family and for their great loss. Brittany was a beautiful young lady! Your dad (Gerald) was a wonderful man also, whom I loved, like I love you and your sister and mother. You’re my family! Keep up with the wonderful blog. You are a very gifted writer with a sensitive and kind heart! Love, uncle Larry

  6. You are absolutely right! I understand why, but really isn’t this the cowards way out? Wouldn’t everyone surrounding her gain from the experience, just as you have with watching your father. God is who is in charge of our lives, our country and all the things surrounding us, why do we question what he has in store for us? Maybe my words are harsh, but I truly believe in God and what he has to offer good along with the bad, for the bad is what makes us learn to rely on him and trust in him for with him at our side we can withstand anything and have dignity. My mother is currently in the nursing home with Alzheimer’s she has not been able to communicate (talk) to me in over two years, yet every day she is teaching something! She is my inspiration and I don’t say the words above just because that is how I feel, I see it through her all the time. Yes, she had/has a strong Catholic faith and today at mass in the nursing home the gospel was about how all those there were not there by their choice but by God’s and that they were guiding some lost soul to him which they would not be united with until they themselves passed. Instead of thinking of the situations we are in as a death sentence maybe we should think that by being in the situation we are a chosen one to represent him.

  7. Well written and well stated. Thank you!

    Paul

    The Olmstead¹s ­ Paul, Susan, Austen, Alex, Zeb Missionary Training Center – Partnership Development

    Our Contact Information: 134 Main Drive, Roach, MO 65787 (920) 254-8736 Paul / (262) 365-8949 Susan / (573) 217-8593 Office http://www.ntm.org/paul_olmstead / paul_olmstead@ntm.org / susan_olmstead@ntm.org

    From: all our lemmony things Reply-To: all our lemmony things Date: Tuesday, November 4, 2014 at 2:13 PM To: Paul Olmstead Subject: [New post] Dying naturally is NOT undignified: What we can learn from Brittany Maynard

    WordPress.com Kayla Lemmon posted: “This is one of those blog posts where I’ve written the first sentence about thirteen different times and I’ve deleted it just as many times. Here goes sentence number fourteen. I think it’s because deep down inside I dread talking about something that “

  8. Kayla, thousands of people choose to die this way every year. So really the only thing she did wrong was make it public so that other people can put in their opinions about her life. There’s a saying “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto,” or “I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”~ Maya Angelou. Only god can judge u in the end and even then he did die on the cross for our sins so we wouldnt not have to shoulder the weight.

    • Just because hundreds of people do it, doesn’t make it right.

      Killing yourself isn’t dignified. It’s as far away from dignified as you can get.

      Your attitude in your trials is where dignity comes in. Wanting to take the quick way out shows a complete lack of faith.

      As yes, our bodies are not ours. You are destroying something that isn’t yours.

      There are people who commit suicide daily. The difference being, a lot of those people are not in their right minds. People like Brittany Maynard are in their right minds. There is no excuse for what they choose to do.

  9. I have a neurological condition that causes chronic and extreme pain in my lower body, along with muscle spasms that have lasted up to 50 minutes. I was hospitalized in 2012 for uncontrolled pain, and these days I have a large assortment of pain medications to help me when I need them. So I understand the thoughts that come into our heads when it seems like we’ve had enought. But, I believe that the circumstances of our lives do not matter. What matters is how we deal with them. It is a terrible thing to see someone suffer or to be the one that suffers, but we do not live our lives in isolation. There is a purpose behind everything that happens, even the bad. Our “job” is to persevere and do the best we can. That’s my take on this. Having said that, I would find no fault in someone who decides that death (for themselves) is the answer to their suffering. We all make our own choices, the best we can.

  10. I absolutely loved this post – it’s beautiful, so well thought through and articulate. This sentence here is great: “Dignity is trudging through the muck of life, dirt smeared on your face and sins heaped like piles at your feet, and still carrying on and looking up”.

    I also posted about Brittany yesterday, from a Christian perspective and not agreeing with her decision. But very carefully. That said, I didn’t even consider the point you raise that dying at the hand of illness is dignified too. You are so right. My mum passed after a battle with cancer and to say she was not dignified to the very end (the last thing she had me do was help her dress as she didn’t want to leave the house in her pyjamas!) would be completely untrue.

    Thanks so much for sharing your perspective in this conversation.

  11. Thank you for your comment. My mother has had ongoing, serious health issues for 12 years and has suffered greatly and has experienced a tremendous amount of physical pain and her suffering is not over yet because she has cancer throughout her body now. I believe that suffering is a part of God’s plan. We might not understand the why until later but it is wrong for us to dictate when our suffering ends. We need to trust that God knows best and have courage to endure the trials that God gives us.

  12. That was beautiful, so well said, and most of all so true! Death is never without dignity and your words on this were sensitive, helpful, may the Lord bless you!

  13. Very well said!!!!! I had a brain bleed and though the pain was horrific I knew there was a reason why I was experiencing this. I love the song “Beautiful Heartbreak” by Hillary Weeks. This event was truly a beautiful heartbreak for my family and I. Thank you for posting the truth!

  14. I definitely appreciate what you’ve written here about this story. My opinion is slightly different from yours but this is a well written point of view. I think most importantly and beyond the singular life of Brittany’s, she’s managed to get people talking about the subject. No matter where a person stands at their end of life choices- surely as we’re born, we are destined to face that day. I suppose it doesn’t matter now what any of us think of what she did. She is beyond our world now. We must make sure our loved ones know where we stand at talk more about this uncomfortable topic. We need to address these personal issues before a diagnosis, or trauma or sudden downturn of health happens. Again, I thank you for your words.

  15. If YOU don’t support the death with dignity law, don’t take advantage of it. There is no debate on this subject. I’m sure the things your family went through were very painful, and no one is saying that your Father did not die with dignity. But if someone chooses to not go through all the pain, then that’s their choice. Religious beliefs or not, you should never have posted this. You have absolutely 0 rights to say any of the things you said. YOU do not have a form of cancer that is going to slowly and painfully kill you. YOU do not have to wake up tomorrow knowing you have x amount of days. YOU are not going to have to sit and watch your life slip by in weeks, in agonizing pain, wishing for it to end and wishing you didn’t have to die so young. You are an incredibly insensitive person. You lack any form of morals and honestly, should feel completely ashamed that you thought for a single second that you had any right to chime in on this subject.

    I hope you rethink your seriously warped world views.

    • Kayla addressed this matter with complete sensitivity and makes every effort to account for the beliefs and feelings of others. That she has an opinion different than your own does not call into question her morals or honesty. As I read the original post and the comments, I can honestly say I do not know what I would do if something like this happened to myself or one of my loved ones. What I do know, is that you, Jayne, have turned a difference of opinion into an attack on someone’s character. A fact which does not speak very highly of yours. Perhaps your life is affected by a life-threatening illness which is making this a tough subject for you. If that be the case, I am terribly saddened on your behalf and will pray for you. Be well and God Bless.
      gently,
      Ellen

    • Jayne, Jayne, Jayne – There is such venom in your words and I am sad about whatever you must be going through. Everyone passes through this life with their own set of trials and circumstance, and that shapes our opinion and perspective. Kayla is no different. What she is saying, is the term “death with dignity” ie: suicide implies that suicide is somehow more dignified than allowing yourself to pass through suffering and death in a natural way, which is a trend that is happening of late. A very dangerous trend. Some will jump on the bandwagon while they still have years of life left ahead. Treatments may develop and miracles can happen. Suicide is so final. And as hard and sad as it feels at the time, there is always still hope! A bad day comes along that makes you want to end it all, yet there may still be a thousand good days ahead you will never get to have – nor your family with you – if you choose to end it now. Of course no one can make that ultimate decision for another person. The point is – life is precious and too many issues in society take life so lightly. Suicide, abortion, rape, murder, terrorism, the list goes on. It’s time people, like Kayla, speak up in an effort to try and reverse this trend. She was sensitive in every way, had every right to say what she did – as do you – and should not be vilified for it.

      • Suicide is not “so final.” Nothing is final, not really. It is sad that the relationship you have with your Jesus, and your understanding of his death and resurrection has you limiting the power that HIS Atonement has.

    • An opinion that differs from yours does equate to wrong.

      I think Kayla must have touched a nerve… because you know what Brittany Maynard did was wrong.

      You tell Kayla that she lacks morals… taking a life (even your own) is morally wrong. There is no excuse for it. Attacking someone as compassionate as Kayla doesn’t speak well of your character.

      • tallgurrl

        You misunderstand me, and with respect, you have no need to feel sad on my behalf, or about whatever relationship you think I may or may not have with my Savior. Though I did not express it in my comment above, I have 100% belief in Jesus Christ’s Atonement and faith that He will do what he promises. He will heal ALL wounds, when we turn to Him. I’m sorry you feel the need to project that you think I believe that the Savior I worship is somehow limited. (I bet we both worship the same Savior, after all.) I also know the Atonement will apply to Brittany Maynard, as it will to all of us. I also know that He has the power to have healed her wounds, whatever they were – IN THIS LIFE, as well as the next. What I am sad about is that this young woman has sold herself short, and has sent a message to the world that to sell one’s self short in this life is somehow OK. While I believe He loves her and He will welcome her home with open arms, He will also have wanted her to have made a different choice.

  16. Great post, Kayla. You wrote this in a very understanding, non-judgmental way that I hope everyone can see. As a Christian, who believes 100% in the truth of God’s Word, I am deeply saddened by the entire situation. I believe what Jesus said when He spoke the Great Commission. One of the signs that follow believers is they will lay hands on the sick, and they will be healed. Cancer is straight from the pit of Hell, and we have power over it. We can pray for someone and not see them healed, but it doesn’t change the truth of what Christ said. Having said that, I am deeply sorry for anyone who has suffered through the loss of a loved one because of a disease or illness. It’s never an easy road to travel. God bless

  17. Kayla – thanks once again for articulating what so many of us are feeling. As I look at the photo of her with her family standing by the Grand Canyon, a beautiful and vibrant young woman – I assume days before she took her life, I can only think she looks as though she still had so much life left to live! I don’t know her circumstance, it’s not my right to judge her. From the perspective of an outsider, I can only guess in her case – it must have been fear of the unknown, rather than faith in what might be that governed her decision. I wonder about all the worldly variables surrounding it. Did her husband need to get back to work in California? Did she have a health plan that was insufficient? Was she trying to keep her family out of bankruptcy over her illness? What was her religious affiliation or lack there of? If these questions I have sound insensitive, then I apologize in advance to anyone this may offend. I am grateful not to be in her shoes, though everyone needs to assess the “what if” possibilities if this were to ever become a reality for any of us. I would encourage everyone – put it in the hands of skilled and inspired doctors, God and family. Choose and resolve to squeeze every last drop out of life! It’s all any of us are ever going to get.

  18. It is clear to me that we all have one thing in common and that is I believe we feel sad that Brittany had to endure this illness at such a young age. It is a tragedy when someone and their family is faced with such a hardship. However, I know and I believe that trials and bad things don’t happen without a reason. Sometimes in this Earthly life we may not understand, but their is a reason. I do not think it was Kayla’s intention to hurt or belittle anyone in this post. Like you Jayne, she was expressing her reaction and feelings about what happened. We are all entitled to our own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and if we choose to we may write about them in a blog, journal, or etc. Jayne, if you’re experiencing or have experienced a hardship similar then I’m sorry and I wish you the best. Kayla, thank you for having the courage to speak up about your feelings about this sensitive subject. I’m sure your Father would be proud. I can relate to the grief one may feel when losing someone to such a terrible illness. I’m sure it was very difficult to help your dad find his way back to his Heavenly home and there probably is not a day that you don’t think about him. I think how lucky you and him are to have each other! May you and your family experience joy and peace during this upcoming holiday season. Thank you for sharing your wisdom, thoughts, feelings, and personal experience about this subject. Though I’m not the same religion as this lady I have been following her blog. She is a 38 year old mother of four who is experiencing terminal cancer. She writes about her beautiful journey on a blog. When she passes on she will leave her children with a wonderful legacy. It is called Mudane Faithfulness.

  19. Jayne, you clearly are the minority in the opinions that have been posted here. I find your post very distasteful in the fact that just because you have a different opinion doesn’t mean the rest of us are immoral and don’t have a right to voice our opinion! I stand behind this post and feel Kayla did us all a favor in speaking out on our behalf without knowing…..

  20. There is too much judgement on other people and their situations. Through some really hard experiences I have learned that I have zero right to judge another’s actions, unless they are directly harming others. Brittany’s decision didn’t directly harm anyone. She has the right to make decisions about her life without your opinion and judgement.

    • Actually, her decision could harm many people. The depressed teen who cannot imagine life will ever get better. The person who just might make it to the other side of an awful diagnosis and live a meaningful life. So many people who feel hopeless could well take her action as justification to end their own suffering. People have called her brave, a hero, an angel. Oh how very attractive that outpouring could seem to one who sees no light at the end of a tunnel.

  21. You said everything I was feeling and thinking about this. Death is not something to be pushed away and sanitized. It’s messy and hard and sad. But it’s the way we were created, to cherish every last minute of it — even the really hard ones. Thank you for writing with such compassion and caring. Regardless of our individual faiths, life is precious. And ending a life even a day too soon is a tragedy we should all mourn. (An aside…I personally know two people who had the same diagnosis. as she did. One is now still going strong 10 years later, after a very rough bout of a year with surgery and treatments. The other is a vibrant college student who is now 4 years past that deadly diagnosis. Of course, it could return for either of them. And today could be that day. But oh the days and weeks and years they have had between then and now!)

  22. me
    This is another side of the debate to consider. I am not sure where I stand because I can see both sides. Just focusing on the medical situation and not whether it’s dignified or courageous to die as Brittany chose or naturally. Because I think either way, a person can be both of those things regardless of what choice they make. I want to share this with you before I go on about the other viewpoint. I want you to know how I feel about life and the choice I made when dealing with a high risk pregnancy. I had all ready lost a baby in 1992 at 6 moths into my pregnancy. Back in 1994 I had a scare with my baby showing a medical condition that would cause her to live for a few days at the most, after birth. The Doctor wanted me to have an amniocentesis which I initially declined telling him I was not going to play God and abort her if it showed she did have the condition. He then said I would not have to abort the baby if the worse case was true, but finding out now would let me be prepared for what was to come. So, I agreed to the procedure.

    Back to another viewpoint of the debate. This is not a one size fits all decision. Her disease cannot be compared to others because the form of her brain cancer wreaks havoc much, much worse than many other diseases and experiences that we have gone through with other people dying of a disease such as cancer, and it’s not always the same with each person even if they have the same exact disease. For example, my Dad’s lung cancer, or my Brother’s Aids, or my Uncles throat cancer. Watching my Dad and my Brother die a slow death is hard on everyone but especially on the patient. Compared to my other relatives who died quickly of non- cancer medical issues and my infant daughter that died instantly after birth at 6 months pregnant. I would much rather have death be quicker in most circumstances (not all). My Dad lasted 9 days without anything to drink to or eat. They were expecting him to pass within 24 hours but it took 9 days. My Brother over a year’s time became nothing but bones. The last 8 to 4 weeks of his life, he was unrecognizable and don’t forget how dangerous it is to be around an AIDS patient. Weeks before he died, and with open sores on his lips and face, I tried to get closer to understand what my brother was trying to tell me. The nurses were freaking out because I was getting too close to him for their comfort. They didn’t want me to accidentally touch his sores for fear of me catching AIDS. I was also 8 months pregnant at the time. When I left him and got outside, I started throwing up everywhere because he looked so bad and then knowing it was AIDS and how dangerous the virus was, it was just too much. I do not see any reason why my Father or Brother needed to suffer so long and die “naturally”. Consider this, we can choose when to go into labor to give life through methods of inducing labor with pharmacological medication and mechanical or physical approaches. People can set up a C section in advance and you know what date you are going to give birth. Why is it wrong for the same approach to a person who is dying? Labor doesn’t always come on naturally and is induced sometimes not for medical reasons but because the Mom is almost fully dilated but isn’t having contractions. This is not a life or death situation but most Doctors and Mothers agree to get things rolling and hasten the birth along and will use various steps to get labor going. Why not be able to have that choice in death as in a case like Brittany Maynards’? Why cant’ a death be hastened in order to not have difficulties and/or a long drawn out process? I think we all can agree, that life is the opposite of death. To have a 100% certain diagnosis of a fatal illness like in this case of Brittany Maynard, why can’t she have to luxury given to Mother’s on impending births as discussed above, with selecting the day or hastening the process to avoid foreseen difficulties and trauma? Isn’t it just the flip side of the medical process of birth?

    The other argument I would like to make is one that may not be widely known of health care facilities. If you are terminally ill and get to a certain point, food and water may be withheld to hasten death. Withholding food and water to let a person die is a medical procedure that is legal in these type of situations. Death is being selected and is not naturally happening because with food and water the person may live longer. Regardless of whether food and water is being withheld or a drug is giving by a Doctor to have you die….it’s a narrow line between the two. Withholding food and water is going to bring the same end result buy just days or weeks later. This has always been bothersome to me because loved ones do not always know this is being done. It’s not discussed but my Father who worked in hospitals all of his career as a biomedical engineer told me about this practice back in my candy striping days.

    I leave you with these words in support of Brittany Maynard and her family. God Bless her and her loved ones. I know in her heart, she did what she knew was right for her.

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