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Peaceful death: A fundamental human right?

Easing the burden of preparation, a baseline right for everyone

Photo of Alyssa Frances Thompson
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Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine the end-of-life experience?

For everyone, would have broad trickle down (up?) effects on care and access.

A few months ago, I went to a primary care appointment and asked my doctor about an advance directive. He was a little taken aback. “Not many people ask about that. Glad you’re thinking of it.” He wasn’t sure where to direct me, but said he’d follow up with more information, and the next day, he wrote with links to the forms used in California. Since then, I learned of several exciting ideas to help more people complete advance directives and, critically, streamline the way healthcare providers access them. 

The thing is, if I’m honest, my answer to a lot of the questions on the form is, “I don’t know.” 

How could I know what I’d wish for in a hypothetical situation I’ve never experienced? Do I want my life prolonged? (Initial here). I could probably write a treatise on all the nuanced ways I feel about this, and it would only leave the doctor confused. I guess I’ll just put “No” (But, but, but!). Do I want my pain relieved even if it hastens my death? “Yes” (??? But not under x, y, and z circumstances!). I don’t even know what I would like to eat or talk about or listen to around the time of my death. Maybe I’ll want quiet. Maybe I’ll want Janet Jackson. I’m terrible at predicting these kinds of things. 

I’ll certainly aspire to update my forms frequently, but I wish I could also say to whatever doctor might be dealing with me, “Please just treat me as you would your own daughter.” That’s it. That’s really the only instruction I want to give. 

Actually, why isn’t that the default fallback? Why is the default, “Preserve life at all costs”? Not “Preserve a peaceful death at all costs”? Not, “The Golden Rule, drop the mic”.

Well, there are actually many reasons for this. And one among them must certainly be that we have agreed as a society to view life as a certain and unalienable right, and we’ve interpreted that in both wonderful and destructive ways.

But don’t we have the mental flexibility to also view a peaceful death as a human right? Don’t we need to? I’ll leave the question of whether you can you actually view life as a human right without viewing death as one for a later philosophical roundtable.

Wouldn’t a great step forward be to treat a peaceful death as a human rights issue? Perhaps a public health issue, while we’re at it? I’m certainly not the first or the millionth with this idea. Spiritual thinkers and all manner of folks across the globe have been talking about this for a long time. But now, with all the tools of advocacy at our fingertips, couldn’t we, as a growing digital community, organize around death in ways never before imagined? And how can we identify and galvanize support around those who are already working towards this, and have likely been for years and years?

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I believe that we must organize as a citizenry, around issues of death and dying. I wrote a blog in Huff Post 2 years ago, entitled "Palliative Care; The need for a new Grassroots Movement."  But to me it's more about our culture confronting the issue of mortality and fear, rather than seeing it as a "public health issue."  Death is not a medical event or crisis. It's simply the moment when our time is up!
And THAT needs to be treated with utmost care and compassion, especially if that time is extensive and involves high levels of suffering

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