Should death be peaceful

This link is a very thoughtful piece, about ways to die.

Today is my late grandmother’s birthday. She passed away last year, shortly before her 92nd birthday. I was working when I got the phone call from my mom saying they had taken her to the hospital and it didn’t look good. She called less than a half hour later to say she was gone.

There are a lot of things to say about how much I loved her, and how she was. She was the only grandparent I knew as an adult or teenager. I never knew my grandfathers, and my mother’s mother died when I was 12.

But in comparison to the article linked above, she lived a very different life. The article portrays how many doctors choose to end their lives, because they know the limits of medicine’s abilities – which means they choose to end their lives often earlier, with fewer treatments and medications, but often more peacefully. In a world where most people who can afford to (and particularly their families) will go to extremes to extend their lifespan, this is a bit of a radical alternative. The author certainly portrays this as a more sane option, and in principle, I agree. However, circumstances matter, and everyone is different.

My grandmother was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome in her seventies. When I was little, that seemed old. Now, with my father nearly the same age, it seems like the spring of youth and all too early. Guillain-Barré syndrome is a neurological disorder that causes complete or nearly complete paralysis. In the modern age, that means a machine breathes for you, you don’t eat but get sugar intravenously, and all your other functions have to be managed by medical staff. My grandmother could move one big toe, with which she could give yes or no answers. Western Hospital in Toronto is fully of patients with said syndrome, many of whom will never recover, and some of whom will die of the disease. My grandmother’s recovery initially entailed 60 asthma puffers a day in order to breathe. She was still taking up to 11 a day most of my life (the 20 odd years ensuing her hospitalization).

There were many complications of all sorts of bodily systems that she managed for the next couple of decades with the help of my father and my aunt. The long story short is that she did not take the route described in the article I linked. She took the route of medicine and extension. It was a bumpy road, to be sure.

On the other hand, in those twenty years, she watched four grandchildren grow up, became a great-grandmother, continued to keep a large garden and live alone in a house with her dog, hold family dinners and our huge Christmas every year – all right up until the day she died. She helped keep our family together and was our matriarch, both by being a cause of solidarity and a loving support. She traveled all over the world, frequently with friends her own age – and frequently driving across continents. She still walked everywhere, and volunteered hours upon hours of time. She was vigilant about her appearance, and refused to be kept in the house. She was absolutely a force to be reckoned with.

To me and my brother, she never complained. She was eternally supportive and caring, and never mentioned her pain and her difficulties. She certainly did mention them and often to many other family members, so I know my received image is rather skewed.

I feel she is an example of how the long hard road has its own merits that are not always comparable to the peaceful deaths of the minimum intervention approach.

Today, and reading this article, made me think about my own ending, or that of my family. Obviously circumstances will present themselves, when the time comes, that will have their say in the decision of what approach to take. Life, even one full of pain, is surely worth living. Is there a point at which it isn’t anymore? Do families keep certain people alive, more so than the individuals in question keep themselves alive – and is that ethical? To what point? I am not intending in any way to question or criticize my family’s decisions or choices, merely wondering. Ultimately I believe that giving people choices and following their decisions is the ethical way to act. But what would I do? Will I even be concerned about ethics or pain at the time, or only afraid of death?

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