Death is so personal it can’t be politicised
Sydney Morning Herald 23 Oct 2012
Julie Fewster is a former pastoral care worker at Sacred Heart Hospice.
Right now there are two people in my life wanting to die. My 19-year-old university student friend Josh made his intentions really, really clear last week. He stood in front of a train. It didn’t kill him and he is vigorously being kept alive in intensive care. My 86-year-old dad, Bob, who lives in an aged care facility, regularly quotes the Ol’ Man River song “I’m tired of living, but scared of dying.”
So with all this talk about the possibility of legalising euthanasia, what’s the difference between Josh’s suicide attempt and assisted suicide should my dad Bob want it?
Having worked as a pastoral carer at a hospice for the dying, baptised dying babies, and witnessed more than 200 deaths, I have heard the physical and spiritual pain and cries of the dying, and their families and friends. All I know is when it comes to death people have divided reactions. With something so personal, it is dangerous to make it political and legalise euthanasia.
Some are praying for Josh to live no matter how hard it will be for him and his shattered family to cope with his shocking, permanent brain injuries or asking if Josh wanted to die, why did they try to save him? That he will be useless now anyway so let him die.
Most people say (and sometimes I think) that it will be a relief when dad goes – losing his marbles as he is, as well as being a cranky, proud old bastard. The main thing dad hates most is his loss of dignity – he really hates to have to constantly change his pull-ups and that he has no privacy. He hates that his body needs so many hands on it – to change things, rub things, make him swallow things. He feels diminished when he has to lift his arms like a child to let me put on his jumper, or can’t stand up to fasten his trousers (”a bank manager wouldn’t be seen dead in tracky daks”), can’t do up his own seatbelt, or see the food on his clothes, walk me to the door, or slip me a crisp $50 note.
Since dad has been at his most undignified, I have had a choice. To leave him alone (which still I frustratedly do now and then), do what he says (”take me out the back and shoot me”) or learn to love him no matter what. We struggle. We have learnt to look at each other with compassion when I kneel before him and dry his feet, when I tell him he still looks like Frank Sinatra after I cut and comb his hair and when he tells me it’s not right that a daughter has to wipe his bottom. I’ve learnt to walk really, really slowly beside him. I tune in to the little sighs, sometimes our breaths align. We’re both learning about patience and saying sorry – there are tears and curses. In our daily ministrations we are learning to say, no matter what you are going through I love you, I will not leave you alone and you are still worth something in this world. Even in this state.
Research tell us that the reason people try to kill themselves is primarily due to strong feelings of disconnection to people and society, a sense of isolation and/or lack of belonging, and a feeling of ineffectiveness or the sense of being a burden for others. Spiritually, a loss of hope.
Being highly functional and in control is a highly prized concept in our western world. But death is about as out of control as it gets in life. After witnessing so many deaths, I know you should never underestimate a person’s will to live; even if the rest of us don’t think it’s a life much worth living.
Our expectations that we don’t have to endure being out of control or to suffer indignities is feeding a growing sense of entitlement that dulls our capacity and willingness to experience pain and suffering. Yet these two things give us empathy, which leads to tolerance, compassion and love.
When a young person like Josh attempts suicide we cry ”oh no, there must be something wrong with him”, or we blame ourselves. We rarely say, “that’s OK, they were sick of living and it’s their right to choose”. I already hear the rumblings of ”he would be better off dead”. Better for who?
What part of us says it’s OK to look at a sleepy, drooling, pant-dirtying group of old people with dementia and say they can choose to die if they want? Or let someone else says it’s ok.