By Russ Dean
She was surrounded by family and friends in the warmth of her own home. Her breathing stopped; the light went out; she was at peace.
It was apparently just that simple when Brittany Maynard ended her fight with brain cancer Nov. 1 by choosing to take a lethal, but legal, medication prescribed by her doctor in Oregon. Her highly publicized choice has been met with conflicting sentiments around the country. “Right-to-death” advocates celebrate that she died with dignity, in what may otherwise have been an agonizing end. On the other side, a host of critics disparage her so-called “right,” on social, ethical and religious grounds.
One thing Brittany’s death should do for us all is invite us to think about death, and life, more carefully.
Death is one thing we all have in common. All of us. The birds, the bees, the flowers, the trees, the Neanderthals, you and me — we all die. There is no question about it. And yet, people are reluctant to talk about death — especially their own.
We keep a pastoral care file in our church office and invite members to provide information about funeral pre-arrangement policies, burial plots and other logistics, and to share any wishes they may have for a service of celebration. Few of our files have any of this information.
It may be this unwillingness to consider our inevitable death, especially when we are at the top of our game mentally and emotionally, that leads to such difficulties and controversies when tragedy comes or age wears us thin.
Brittany’s death, however, should invite us to clarify the notion that her death was what is commonly denigrated as “playing God.” The confusion is not whether her particular death was what a more primitive people would see as the exclusive purview of a supernatural creator. From that viewpoint, of course her death was “playing God” — but so is most of our healthcare today!
If we want to reserve for God the exclusive right to the end of life then we will also have to relinquish life-saving surgeries, practiced thousands of times every day, and most of the medications that extend our living far beyond what could have been imagined only a few generations ago.
Doctors “play God” every single day (thank God!), but let us not be confused — procedures which postpone death offer an illusion of control, but not the power over Life. Whether we choose to take the medications that extend our living, or the pill that ends it, Life never will be ours to control.
Clearly, we need to have a serious, nation-wide conversation about death. We spend 18 percent of GDP on healthcare, and 30 percent of the annual Medicare budget is spent on beneficiaries in the final year of their lives. I’m not making a callous, bottom-line argument (to let elderly people die in order to save money), but a serious conversation about the rightness, even the goodness of death, is desperately needed.
What are the consequences of astronomically costly heroic measures? Not just to the healthcare financial equation but, much more importantly, to the quality of life for dying patients and surviving families?
Of course, there are serious social and ethical considerations. A USA Today article includes the disturbing reminder of the Oregon woman “who fought her insurance company when it said it would cover drugs for her suicide but not for chemotherapy.” Policy decisions demand the utmost in caution and compassion — with allowances for individual considerations — but it is time for us to outgrow primitive apprehensions about death, and to celebrate that God has entrusted us with a significant measure of participation in the living/dying equation.
Brittany Maynard’s death was confident and courageous. It represents a choice that should be available to people who are well-informed and truly free in end-of-life matters. Whatever light awaits us on “the other side” is not conditioned by the circumstances of our death, but by the deep mystery of God’s grace, and a love that will never let us go.
For Brittany Maynard, thanks be to God!