On November 1, 2014, a 29 year old woman in Oregon took her own life. It made the news, but not because it was a tragic suicide. The tragedy occurred 11 months before, when Brittany Maynard was diagnosed with a brain tumor and was told she had about six months to live.
And live, Brittany Maynard did. She was given the opportunity to make the most of her time left on Earth, to make memories for the people she would leave behind, and to come to terms with her failing health and ultimate death. A search on Google will give you plenty of details on how Brittany spent the last year of her life, and that’s not what I want to write about, anyway. I want to write about how she chose to die, as I imagine a lot of people are doing this week.
All Brittany Maynard wanted was to die with dignity. She didn’t want to linger in pain, become dependent on friends, family or machines to continue her life. There was no doubt she would die, so she wanted to be in control of how much suffering she would be made to endure. She wanted her loved ones to remember her life, and not how awful her decline and death was. She wanted to die in a humane manner.
Ms. Maynard’s wishes gained national attention because willingly taking a human life, including our own, is a big deal. In many states suicide is illegal and, in fact, she moved to Oregon in order to be able to die when she was ready. Washington, Montana, Vermont and New Mexico are the only other states that have similar laws that allow people to take their own lives if they are terminally ill. Ms. Maynard’s death wasn’t suicide as we have come to think about suicide. She didn’t kill herself because she didn’t want to live; in fact, it seems her very desire to live was part of the foundation of her decision. She never hid the fact that she was dying, and she was very open with the media about her decision, so I can only imagine that she had plenty of difficult conversations with those who were close to her. It can’t have been easy to accept that she would die, but nothing was going to change that. How she would die was the one thing anyone could control, and it was entirely Ms. Maynard’s choice.
It boggles my mind that I can take my cat, which had an aggressive and painful tumor that caused her to waste away, to the veterinarian’s office for a drug cocktail that will stop her suffering, but that we cannot allow another human being the right to make the same decision for his or herself. We wouldn’t allow an animal to suffer the same way we make humans suffer by not allowing the terminally ill to choose how their life will end. We have lots of choices about what will happen when it’s time to die, including Do Not Resuscitate orders, Power of Attorney to allow our loved ones to speak on our behalf when we can’t, and even the choice of how our body will be disposed of once we’re dead. If a person wishes to not suffer at the end of their life, how can we humanely say no to that? It’s an insanely personal, insanely hard decision, and everything about it sucks, but it should be an option when there are very few options left.
So, thank you, Brittany Maynard, for getting us to talk about the hard stuff. Your life, and your death, was meaningful. May you rest in peace.