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Conscious Dying: The Right to Choose

If physician-assisted suicide had been a choice for my grandmother, she would have had a death that reflected her life.

Photo of Libby Ellis
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We’re used to talking about choice. The choice to have a child, eat meat, recycle, marry. As responsible, conscious people we make decisions every day. But when it comes to end of life choices, as a society we’re a bit behind.

Jack Kevorkian’s 2011 death brought back a flood of memories for me. He was my grandmother’s hero. While she was admittedly—and quite proudly—a touch twisted, I happen to agree with her and Jack: We should have a choice when it comes to end of life decisions. Growing up with her in my life, it was impossible not to see suicide as an option. Our first conversation about this took place when I was four. She explained to me that it would be up to her, that made sense to me then and it makes sense to me today.

When she tried, and failed, to kill herself there was no dignity left. Dementia took over and she lived for eight miserable years, angry and scared.

In my early twenties, I made my own plans for when I get old. They involve: assisted living, water aerobics and my best friend of 30+ years. 

She and I learned to swim together. We took ballet together. When she got pregnant she told me, "You're going to be an auntie!" The idea that if our partners die before us—or better yet, they don’t—I may be lucky enough to spend my old lady years with her and members of my circle of people is comforting.

More than just the specifics of the Old People Dorm Plan, the idea that I will have a say in my own fate is, at the core, what is appealing.

Suicide, assisted or otherwise, is a hard sell. I’m in no way saying it should be mandatory, based on one’s ability to afford care or based on anything other than personal choice. It’s about asking the big questions: How much pain can I endure? How much of myself, or my freedom, can I stand to lose? Has my life been fulfilling? Does the good outweigh the bad? What does my God say about suicide?

For many people, religion might be the deciding factor. And that’s fine. I’m not saying that anyone should break from a religion that has filled their lives with tradition, comfort and joy.

End of life decision-making should be intense and it should be personal. But it should be a decision.

My end of life plan is, in theory, fairly sunny. I realize I may not be that lucky, or that even if I am, I may end up very sick and alone at the end. I can’t say for sure that I would choose assisted suicide if I had the option, but I know I would want the choice to talk honestly with my doctor and my loved ones and then make an informed decision.

The choice to end her own life with dignity is a luxury my own grandmother didn’t have, but it’s one I feel is fundamental to creating a conscious, kind society.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Aaron

It sounds like you have a really great friend and support system, Libby (:
Your story about your grandmother reminds us how real death is.
I hope you don't mind me asking, but how did the topic of death come up between you and your best friend?
Did your grandmother have any part in your decision making?

Manuela Gsponer also talks about religion (or the lack of religion) in decision making and preparation. I think both are valid, but I wonder if they are necessarily conflicting ideas.

Photo of Manuela

Dear Aaron, could you tell us, where you see the conflicts in ideas? 

Photo of Aaron

Sure, Manuela.

Libby Ellis  factors in the question of "What does my God say about suicide" in The Right to Choose. People may be religious or spiritual - how might religion affect their decision? 

In your post, Atheism, assisted suicide and the need for more dignity and self-determination at the end of life. , you say that being atheist breaks defined rituals prescribed by a religion - and correct me if this is not what you meant, but in turn free from any religious pressure when making hard decisions. 

Religion factored in vs religion factored out. What might be the similarities be and what might be the major differences?

Photo of Manuela

Thank you Aaron. Very good Input. 

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