Death with Dignity by Carol P. Christ


Carol Christ in LesbosIn the summer of 1960 when I was 14 years old my much loved grandmother Mae Inglis Christ died of a cancer that affected her brain. The last time I saw my Nannie was shortly after her diagnosis in the early spring. While we were visiting, the cancer affected her back, and she took to her bed. In those days children were not allowed in hospitals. I never saw my grandmother alive again, but my mother told us that our grandmother was hooked up to tubes much longer than she should have been. Mother vowed, “This will never happen to me.” I was driven to the funeral in a limousine with my grandmother’s girlfriends. They spoke about my grandmother’s last days, describing how (because her mind was affected by cancer) my little grandmother had screamed and screamed at them for not visiting–even though they were with her every day. They found my grandmother’s outbursts so traumatic that they said they were relieved to see her looking so peaceful in her coffin.

In the 1970s my aunt Jeanne Virby Imgram whose family had “adopted” me when I lived on the east coast was diagnosed with breast cancer. She recovered and passed the seven year mark before her cancer returned. On my way to Greece in the 1980s I stopped in New York to visit her one last time. I found my Aunt Jeanne in her home in a semi-comatose state (most probably due to morphine), drifting in and out of consciousness. When she woke up and recognized me, Aunt Jeanne begged for help, explaining that she was ready to die, that she had already died, but then woke up in the hospital after being resuscitated. She said she had begged her husband to let her die, but she was afraid he would take her to the hospital again. My cousin confirmed this, saying that her Dad yelled at her when she broached the subject with him. My cousin said I was the only one who could speak to her father. Speaking to my Uncle Dick was one of the hardest things I have ever done. My Uncle Dick listened to me and began to cry, but he allowed my Aunt Jeanne to die with the last shreds of her dignity a few days later.

In the summer of 1991, my mother Janet Bergman Christ was diagnosed with cancer that had already spread to her bones and her lungs. The doctors told her that with chemotherapy and radiation she might live another year or more. Shortly after her diagnosis, my mother told my brother, “I’m going to fight this as long as I can, but when my time is up, I intend to go quickly.” She wrote her living will in the state of California, stating that she did not want to die in the hospital. My mother submitted to radiation that burned her female parts (“This is normal, Mrs. Christ,” she was told) and to chemotherapy that made her hair fall out. In the end, she lived about four months from the day of her diagnosis. Shortly before she died, my mother (who was not one to question authority figures) began to speak of her doctors as “butchers.” True to her word, as soon as my mother learned that her cancer had not gone into remission with treatment, she “gave up the ghost” quite quickly. As my mother was dying, my father called the doctor to ask if he should take her to the hospital. He was told to let her die peacefully at home as she wished.

A few years after my mother died, my Aunt Mary Helen Bergman Calfee was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Mindful that medical treatment had increased her sister’s suffering, she decided against it. When I visited her a few months before her death, Aunt Mary Helen wore a scarf over the tumor on her neck and spoke openly about her impending death, wondering if she “would be around” when the bulbs she had just planted came up. She wasn’t.

Recently Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her life before cancer ravaged her brain (as happened to my Nannie), and to speak publicly about her decision, has reopened the question of the right to choose the manner of one’s death.

I am certain that my mother and my aunts would have supported Brittany. If my Roman Catholic grandmother had known what her last days were to have been like, even she might have gone against her Church.

While extremely brave and admirable, Brittany’s decision to die with dignity is not available to every American. Only five states (Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Vermont, and Montana) allow terminally ill persons to choose to die. Brittany Maynard and her husband had to move to another state in order for her to be able to dies as she wishes. This required time and money that most people don’t have.

In the European Union assisted suicide is legal in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Switzerland. Here in Greece doctors often do not tell patients their true prognosis, and there is no right to die with dignity. My only hope to die with dignity if I come down with a terminal illness is to be able to make it to another country in time.

In my recent blog “The Ancestors Live in Us,” I stated that I have no desire to live on after death. I also have no fear of dying, but like my mother and my aunts, I hope to die with dignity.

Writing this blog has caused me to ponder the meaning of the phrase, “the ancestors live in us.” There is no doubt that the memory of her mother-in law’s death “lived on” in my mother and that the memory of my Nannie’s, my mother’s, and my aunts’ deaths live on in me. I mourn the way my grandmother died to this day, and I am grateful that my mother and my aunts shared their feelings and decisions about death and dying with me.

I know my mother called me to her before she died because she sensed that I would be able to help her in her dying. My Aunt Mary Helen’s children asked me to visit her as she was dying in the hopes that I would encourage her to “let go.”

300px-Black_angel_iowa_cityI was forced to confront death at a very early age. The year my Nannie died, my mother’s father, and our family’s new baby, my brother Alan, also died. In the next few years we lost my father’s father and his younger sister. Lately I have been pondering the ways that I am “not like the others.” I sometimes focus on being “too tall” or “too smart,” but as I write this blog, I also recognize that another mark of my difference is that I have been “familiar with death” for a very long time.

One of the ways I have honored my Nannie’s memory is by learning to accept that death is part of life. This enabled me to spiritually assist my mother and my aunts in their dying process. I have come to understand that in smaller and larger ways, I was able to play the role of the “Good Angel of Death” for them. From all of them, I have learned that death is not to be feared and that it is important to choose how we will die.

My Nannie, my mother, and my aunts live in me as I urge you to talk as openly as they did to me about death and dying and to do what you can to make death with dignity an option for us all.

Brittany Maynard died on November 1, 2014.

The images are of the Black Angel statue by Mario Korbel in the Oakland Cemetery of Iowa City, Iowa.

Carol has recently returned from a life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete–early bird discount available now on the 2015 tours.  Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women.  Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.

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Categories: Ancestors, Death, Death and Dying, Earth-based spirituality, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, General

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23 replies

  1. Thanks Carol. The whole process of medical treatment needs humanizing and more dignity too. A close friend spent some time in the hospital this year, and I was shocked when a nurse told me we could hug and cuddle. I saw my brother doing that with my father some years ago when my Dad was hospitalized too. Also the hospital where my friend was being treated had no visiting hours, you could arrive at any time and leave at any time. I talked to one of the nurses about that and she said the rules were new, but that studies had shown that interaction with loved ones can help speed up and make more effective all forms of healing.

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  2. As I read this blog with the radio on in the background, the Canadian national news reported the death of Brittany Maynard, in a sympathetic way. This is being considered in several provinces. I’m totally with you. My grandmother saw two of her sisters die slowly and painfully (and difficult for the family who had a long trip to the hospital). When she had her stroke I believe that she willed herself to stay alive until the far-flung family gathered, and then allowed herself to die. Similarly, I believe that my mother, after she was widowed for the second time, explored her options, and, when she decided that her quality of life was diminishing, quietly allowed herself to die.

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    • Brittany was alive when I wrote this last week, but news of her death was posted just before it went up.

      I do believe that in many cases we can decide not to fight dying and let go, as my mother and your grandmother and mother did.

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  3. Because I’ve moved to a different city, I’m updating my Advance Directive and finding local friends to represent my wishes if I’m not able to do so. (I live in British Columbia) Medicine has become such “big business” in some practices that keeping a patient alive well past a “best before date” is something that I’m trying to protect myself from. Your advocacy for family members is such a valuable service, Carol.

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  4. Amen. After watching my mother live 8 more years than she wanted to because one (very loving) person in the family felt it was his religious obligation to keep her alive, I tell my children that I don’t want that for myself. I hope they don’t have to make that choice, but if they do, I want them to know that letting me die it is the kindest thing they can do for me. I’m in my 70’s, so things may not change in time for me, but it’s time to change the culture of fearing death–which results in fearing a life with no dignity.

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  5. Reblogged this on Matrignosis: A Blog About Inner Wisdom and commented:
    My friends: I’ve just returned from a long weekend to the mountains of North Carolina, where we enjoyed a few beautiful fall days before being surprised by the first snow of winter. As we enjoyed Nature’s spectacular show about the cycles of life the personal drama of Brittany Maynard’s dying and death was being played out on a national stage. I fully support her decision to die with dignity and am pleased to reblog this post about it by Carol P. Christ. My deepest sympathies go out to Brittany’s loved ones.
    Jeanie

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  6. Thank you, Carol, for giving eloquent voice to what so many of us have faced, are facing, will face. I hope to be an “angel of death” for my 101 year old mother-in-law whose time is near.

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  7. Thanks, Carol, this is a topic we all need to discuss. I think choice is key.
    Best wishes, MEH

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    • PS When I said I played the role of the “angel of death,” I assumed that “she” is a good angel (I changed the phrase to “good angel of death” who is there to help others with their choices when death is inevitable. Just an hour ago I heard the term used for a person who killed people against their will. This is not what I meant.

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  8. Thank you for this post. Death is such a touchy subject for so many, there is so much fear around it. My mother in law has been has end stage COPD and has been bed ridden for two years now. As an intuitive / empath I really feel she has been meant to go for awhile, like the gates have opened for her to cross but she has not. Her family wants her to keep fighting, to me it’s sad, there is no dignity in the continual suffering. She barely ever leaves her home, she is becoming burdensome and people are but tout of caregiving to keep her at home. I feel the fear is of death yea but also there is fear of grief. People are afraid to move I to death, endings, loss, change and so they cling to life even if it’s filled with suffering. I wish her a transition with grace and dignity an on her own terms. One does not need to keep fighting death, that is not weak. It’s a spiritual journey and even a rebirthing into new life. Just food for thought. Thanks again for post :)

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    • I agree that people are afraid of dying and also of dealing with the inevitable which is death. We need to learn that both dying and dealing with loss are nothing more than part of life.

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  9. Thank you for this, Carol! It’s very timely for me, since my 95-year-old father is in hospice with COPD. He’s on morphine and oxygen and is comfortable so far. He stopped eating a few days ago. I know he wishes he could just take something to end the waiting, but we don’t have “death with dignity” here in Pennsylvania. That’s just one reason I’m planning to move to Oregon, where the laws are more humane.

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  10. Hi Carol, Thanks for a beautiful post. I too, have been very familiar with death since my beloved mother died in a car accident when I was fourteen. Because the true circumstances of the events that killed her were kept from me and because I received virtually no support from any adults after she was gone, the trauma of these events made her the defining fact of my life. I spent many, many years unsuccessfully searching for ways to grieve and heal…unfortunately many of these sere seriously self-destructive.

    When my brother, with whom I was quite close, died ten years ago at 47, I was much more emotionally and spiritually mature and I was able to spend a lot of time with him during the seven months between diagnosis and death. I was with him for his last month and it was an amazing gift. He chose not to take any but palliative treatment and stayed at home for the duration. I feel so blessed to have been able to face this with him and other family and friends. I was able to practice my personal spirituality along with the Episcopalian traditions of my childhood. I was able to wash his body and bee with him for quite awhile after most of the circle moved on.

    In any case, I too do not fear death and have no wish for an afterlife other than to fertilize some trees and plants and maybe hang out on a couple of loved ones’ altars. I am determined to make my own choices regarding end of life decisions.

    We do so much to deny and hide the reality of death and dying in the West. One practice I have is to say the words “die, dying, death and dead” rather than the more popular “passed on” or “transitioned” though I use those as well.

    Thanks again for your wisdom!

    Ann

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  11. Carol,

    Thank you so much for this post. My husband’s cousin died of a very similar brain tumor to Brittany’s at the young age of 17. It was a painful and cruel way to die. It has been devastating to watch the Catholic community (for just a taste– catholic.org has quite a few posts on her death) react to Brittany asking to die with dignity. They call it suicide. They call it murder at the hands of the man/woman who prescribed her the medication. They call HER weak. I wonder if they could even stepped outside of themselves to think past the rigidness of their theology to see a human person–to see suffering, to feel compassion. I may no longer be religious, but there is no Christ in those reactions.

    My heart hurts from it. Have we lost all empathy?

    I thought I would share my favorite quote:

    The last enemy to be destroyed is death: J.K. Rowling.

    Again, thank you so much for your post.

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    • Thanks, Carol, for this post. Every death is different, but you described several in ways that illuminated the need for death with dignity. the most recent example for me was my mother-in-law, who died in May. My husband and my daughter (the only grandchild) were able to see her on her last lucid day (I wasn’t able to go, being in the middle of radiation treatment for my breast cancer). My sister-in-law spent the weeks before my mother-in-law’s death with her. She said it wasn’t so hard for her, because she had gone through the death of several sheep on her farm. The only difference was that in the case of her sheep, she would have called the vet to euthanize them about two weeks earlier, i.e. her mother suffered for two unnecessary weeks because in New York there is no assisted suicide. Change in this area of our lives is important

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  12. and taking it one step further death is not an enemy, death is a fact of life. it is not possible to destroy death, it is possible to move beyond the fear of death. even there why use the word destroy?

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    • This is a really big topic you have bitten off with many different directions to take, but in terms of death as ‘destroyer’, it does destroy an old way of life- particularly for the caretaker. So for some spouses, caring for their chronically ill spouse gives them a sense of purpose. Lose the invalid, lose your life purpose, now you are a ‘useless’ old person.
      Similar effect with family members, often the family member that is “do whatever it takes to keep her alive” has a lot of guilt and other issues and they want to ‘buy more time’.

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  13. I actually view the quote through the lens of destroying what death has come to mean in our world today (at least, that is what it means to mean). When we destroy our fear of death, what we attach to it, the baggage it carries for so many– we are free. Whatever that freedom means to the individual, so be it. But death is one of the biggest manipulators in our world– one of the biggest currencies (be it for religion, insurance companies, ect). To not fear it, trade it in– that would be a monster of an achievement in my world.

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  14. Thank you. Such an important topic because if we don’t choose, then medical people will keep us alive as long as they can–because they assume that’s what should be done. I had to make the choice to stop treatment for my husband. I am grateful to our family doctor who told me the straight truth of what would happen if I allowed him to be put on a respirator. It was the right decision.

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    • So right, and illustrated in my grandmother’s and Aunt Jeanne’s stories, and would have been in the other two stories if my mother and Aunt Mary Helen had not been crystal clear about what they did not want.

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  15. Thanks to all of you for sharing your stories and your thoughts.

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  16. Hello Carol. Very interesting reading. Earlier this year, I left my home and stayed with my parents when it became very apparent that my mother could no longer care for my dying father. He absolutely refused to die in hospital and was adamant that he wanted to die at home in his own bed. Another of my brothers came from interstate to help and between us and a community nursing organisation, we cared for him at home even though he did have 2 short trips to hospital. He lasted more than 4 months (when it was expected that he would only last a few weeks) and I believe that this was because he had his family around him. It was very difficult watching him die little by little every day and wondering when the end was coming. Would it be today? Would it be tomorrow, next week, the week after or would he defy everybody and last years? However, in the end, his death came quickly and he did in fact die at home, in his own bed, with his family present. It was nothing like I expected – it took longer and was more peaceful as he just drifted away and then did not take another breath. He had no tubes, no monitors, no alarms to go ping – just his favourite Johnny Cash music playing, Mum wiping his mouth and holding his hands, us telling him that it was okay for him to go and me promising him that we would all look after Mum. He was unable to speak but I could see the gratefulness and appreciation in his eyes. In the end, he had a “good” death. I think that we should all be entitled to have a “good” death.

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  17. Carol thank you for writing about this important topic. It is awful the way we let people suffer as we try to prolong their lives. My aunt, my mother’s twin sister, has breast cancer and it has spread. She has other health problems as well so she opted not to go through chemo or radiation, which upset some of her doctors. It has been almost a year since her diagnosis and although she is much weaker, she is still feeling good. I am so glad that she has the strength to make this decision and that her family understands and is supportive.

    I too used to feel that death was the enemy, but when my husband died I realized that death could also be a friend. My husband died of alcoholism and it destroyed his mind as well as his body. He canceled his health insurance and told me about it afterward. He was hospitalized for a week in the last year of his life and it took me several years to pay off his medical bills. In the last few days before he died I knew the end was near and that nothing could change that, but I did ask him if he wanted to go to the hospital. He didn’t and I was grateful because it would have only left me with more bills. When he did die I waited a half hour to report it so I could be sure he was dead, because I knew the paramedics would revive him if they could, and that would have just prolonged his agony and mine.

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