Euthanasia is murder.
Euthanasia is mercy.
The problem is, how do we bring those two truths together?
Future societies will call us barbaric. They’ll say, yes, they had comfortable lives, but they often ended them poorly. They had everything they needed to live, but they did not know how to die, they couldn’t let go.
They will say we lacked compassion.
They will almost be right.
What will be true is that we quailed at murder. Everything that is good and decent in us is geared towards life and abhors murder. It is good to quail at murder.
But we must not quail at compassion.
The technology we created to sustain us has moved beyond us. It can keep our bodies going well beyond what nature itself can do, and by doing so has thrust us into a twilight world where technology replaces choice. Our fascination with technology makes us think that if we can keep the body going, we should. If it’s possible, we must. No matter what it looks like, for the dying person or those waiting helplessly or fighting relentlessly, we force the body to keep going too far beyond what is physically possible in nature, when the soul need for that to occur is long gone.
My dad wanted to die two years before he actually did. He suffered horribly from rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease, yet no matter what he willed, his body kept going. In the last few weeks of his life I wanted to help him die and I couldn’t: I wasn’t brave enough to go to jail for euthanizing my father, even if I could figure out how to do that.
The only thing I could do in the end was act as his medical power of attorney—I stood at the door of his room in the nursing home and turned away food and water, because that’s what he wanted. Eventually, someone from the area’s fledgling hospice organization showed up to stand beside me.
My dad knew what dying without help would look like: he also knew he was dying and welcomed it. The one thing I could do for him at the end was take away time: because I honored his refusal of food and water he died a bit earlier than he would have with continued intervention.
And intervention seems to be what we are all about as a society: 80 percent of our medical care dollars are spent in the last few months of life, fighting death when there is no hope for the body to continue. Making people—and animals—suffer because we simply can’t let go (and, true, sometimes they can’t let go themselves). Stripping dignity from them and from the survivors.
Making death something to fear.
We think death is evil and should be fought at all costs, when death is part of life and needs to be honored as what it really is: the exit of a soul from that body.
When we should die is the question we must address. That brings up compassion.
When the body is impossibly broken, from injury or disease or simply old age, what should we do?
At some point we need to move beyond fixing to supporting the dying process.
We need to make dying easier. Honor it. Celebrate it. Prepare the community for it. Prepare ourselves for it.
We need to prepare the dying—and the survivors—for wise choices. We need to promote values over intensive and expensive medical care that prolong the agony. Values that allow grief and compassion to kindly say farewell.
Agony has no point. Pain and suffering have no point. I know. I’ve been disabled for over 20 years. I know what pain and suffering do to the body—and the soul.
I refuse pain and disability. There is no point. None.
Our bodies—all bodies—are programmed to strive to survive. That’s how species continue. But when is enough just plain enough?
My beloved dog, Murphy, was a week shy of 13 years and 8 months when she died. She had some severe early health issues, and I worried constantly about her dying, about having to euthanize her. Why? Because I had euthanized my beloved dog, Maggie, too soon.
Without all the information I needed. Without her permission.
Because, for Maggie, euthanasia was murder prompted by exhaustion and confusion. I carried the grief and guilt of that for years.
In the weeks that Murphy was dying from splenic cancer, we talked about her dying. She wanted to go on her own: she believed it was easier for her to go through even a protracted, painful death than for me to once more be derailed by grief and guilt. I had work to do, and no time to waste, she said. So don’t euthanize her. She’d get through it.
I paid even more attention to this issue in the last year, as more and more people came to me and my crystal partner, Fallon, to talk about, and with, dying and deceased loved ones. Over the years, too, I’ve watched the hospice movement grow and now include animals, because people are beginning to value their animal companions as family members. To consider honoring choice.
Here’s what I know.
Hospice should be about the dying person, first and foremost. It should also support the family, including caregivers. What hospice does should be in line with what the dying person and the family want. Not what the hospice workers think or want, or the doctors or nurses or anyone else. Loading the dying up with drugs to mask the pain is cruel: it confuses the brain and the choice, and drags out the process. But at least hospice is out there, and honest, loving people are working through the details.
After all, our society hasn’t been open to dying since technology stole reason from us.
Sometimes death comes upon us unexpectedly, and we have no choice but to accept. I am glad that, in Murphy’s case, I knew death was coming, and we had time to prepare.
We had time to decide how it would look: Murphy was going to die on her own, without help.
I was not going to murder her.
Funny how things work out.
Murphy was right in that her body was gradually shutting down: in her last few days it was clear she really did have cancer, and that it had spread to her gut. She was tired and exhausted, and gradually things shut down.
She wanted to die on her own, so I honored that process.
A splenic tumor can take your dog in several ways: they can just die, as the heart and body give out, or the tumor can rupture, and death is horrible.
In the end, I saw the tumor massively bleed. Murphy got to her feet and stood there, head hanging, as her belly became hard and distended with blood and her gums paled.
I knew her end was upon us. It could be hours yet, but it was there, and could no longer be denied. Would it be horrible, or would she just die peacefully?
That’s when I knew our answer.
Murphy was sparing me the guilt of euthanasia, bravely meeting what could eventually be every bit the horrible death people warned me about.
And I was being selfish in letting her do that.
After all that we had been through together, I was being selfish. That meant I didn’t love enough.
Choice is a community action: equality and individual choice matter, but in the end we have to compromise. It was clear that there was no hope, that Murphy had walked the mystery of death far enough to see the end. Letting her walk into suffering was inhumane.
As tears streamed down my face, I picked up my beautiful girl and said, “Murphy, I love you, and this is enough. It’s over.” I thanked her, too, for allowing me to accompany her on her journey, for living long and well, for helping me to see that helping her die was the last best thing I could do for her. For our family. For me.
The episode was long past when we arrived at the vet’s: she had perked up enough to weakly greet the friends who came to say goodbye and drive us. But I was not going to let Murphy suffer another episode, not even the possibility of one.
Because I was no longer selfish.
Allowing someone to suffer so you don’t have to just creates suffering all around. And pain and disability win. Fear wins.
My grieving, loving heart couldn’t tolerate that. Hers didn’t have to.
Compassion won that day. Love won.
Yes, euthanasia is murder.
My dad would have welcomed euthanasia, but he didn’t have that choice.
In the end, Murphy welcomed it as well, and we were both glad for it.
I quailed at murder, yes. I am glad I did.
But I did not quail at compassion.
I did not quail at mercy.
When the future judges us, as they will, I hope they find that we, or if not us, our children, did finally understand that technology has its limits, that suffering and pain are not acceptable, that death is to be honored and respected, and welcomed when all hope is lost.
That we learned mercy and compassion.
That we made euthanasia what it really is: love sorely tried, and triumphant.
© 2012 Robyn M Fritz