Dignified Life & Death

Learning to embrace life and the dying process creates compassionate, fuller lives.

It is said that death is the great equalizer. Like many things that are oft repeated until they gain the ring of "truth," the fact is death isn't remotely an agent of equality.

If John Ashcroft, for example, dropped dead tomorrow, you could expect reams of paper and thousands of column inches devoted to everything you ever wanted to know (or didn't) about the man, how his death would impact the Bush administration and speculation on his replacement. On the other hand, if a nameless transient you pretend not to see on your daily commute to work bites the dust, you are not likely to find even a one-paragraph obituary about his passing. Since we don't really know what the death gig is all about (and opinions vary from reincarnation to the possibility of eternal damnation), it is presumptuous to assume that death deals us all the same hand or, for that matter, that it doesn't.

While death may be the final comment on our station in life, a convincing argument can be made that pain is the universal equalizer reminding us of our vulnerability and ultimate mortality. And while dwelling on death is considered mentally unsound--at least in our culture--the fact is, we die.

Until recently, people died when, for whatever earthly or cosmic reason, their clock ran out. No one had coined the expression "death with dignity," much less the notion of assisted suicide. And we didn't have to grapple with the medical-technological complex, which for reasons as varied as there are microbes, is committed to extending our lives far beyond the body's natural ability to sustain itself.

Need a body part? No problem: Plastics and alloys can patch a bum knee or replace a faulty heart valve. If you're really in trouble, get on a list and hope someone with a compatible organ or two drops dead just when you hit No. 1 on the waiting list. Maybe someday, we'll be able to rely on harvested body parts from made-to-order animals raised specifically to extend human life.

An interesting aspect of our penchant for technological fixes to nature's inexorable journey to decay is our belief that anyone who questions the "marvels of modern medicine" is, if not a Christian Scientist, either anti-progress, a neo-Luddite or simply a crank. But the fact remains there are ways to look at life and death that question what the medical and technological gurus have spent millions convincing us is the only "rational" way.

Pain is bad. Nobody likes it (well, with the exception of the psychological descendants of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch). So since we're largely in agreement that pain is undesirable, let's not stop and consider that it's also the body's elegantly simple way to let us know something is wrong.

Yet sometimes, pain becomes so unbearable that death may appear a welcome relief. If your pain attends an incurable and especially ugly medical condition, you may choose to pull the plug on yourself rather than endure a lingering, and, thanks to the med-tech folks, expensive dying process.

Although it's unlikely, Arizona may follow Oregon's lead and become the second state to legalize doctor-assisted suicide. Imagine a death clinic in Green Valley where elders can be assured a tidy demise. Interestingly, it appears a majority of physicians are opposed to what we euphemistically call euthanasia. Nevertheless, its proponents can muster sane-sounding arguments outlining its desirability.

Perhaps the most convincing reason is that the state has no business meddling in a person's choice about life and death. This makes sense. Ironically, the very act of passing legislation either for or against gives the state, not the individual, the final say. This is dangerous ground. If you're determined to off yourself someday, better to forego the legislative route. When you've decided it's time, simply down the right combination of pills while involving as few persons as possible.

Still, there is something profoundly sad about the very notion of people choosing death over life--however compromised that life might be. The fact that this debate is surfacing at this point in our history speaks volumes about how our society has conditioned us to view everything, even life itself, through the lens of a cost-benefit analysis.

How many people have chosen death because of the unspoken feeling that they did not want to "inconvenience" family members? How many sons and daughters have dropped subtle hints that a parent would find death a release from pain? How many incontinent elders, wrongly embarrassed by their bodies' deterioration, have opted for death over diapers? Isn't it possible to accept a loss of some bodily functions with grace, dignity and humor?

When we rid ourselves of the tragic notion that our lives could ever be a burden to others and instead choose to live, we allow for the practice of genuine compassion. Alleviating the pain of the terminally ill without resorting to heroic medical intervention or euthanasia frees us from choices externally imposed by technology.

We tell ourselves we don't want to see our loved ones suffer. Of course not. Witnessing pain reminds us of our own, as well as our inability to control the vicissitudes of the human condition. Herein lies the essence of the debate: our belief that the more control we have over our lives, and ultimately our deaths, the better off we are. Not likely.

Perhaps our lives would be fuller if we experienced each precious moment as part of an unpredictable cosmic dance. As our bodies decay, keep dancing in our heads and when our brains give up, and let each cell finish in its time until the music stops and the final note is played.