My Thoughts on the Brittany Maynard Story

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cover-peopleMy posts have been a lot more spaced out than I had originally intended when I started this blog. Life has gotten busy so my time after working and commuting and socializing usually involves sitting on the couch watching syndicated television. Anticipating yet another busy week, I thought I’d write another blog post while I have a quiet moment at home.

Recently, there has been a story about a young woman named Brittany Maynard in the news. She is young (29) and has a brain tumor and recently announced publicly her decision to die with dignity in the form of suicide. I was actually a bit late to the game on the story and only really learned of it when a friend on facebook posted a comment soliciting people’s reactions to this story. There was recently an update to this story that the young woman has decided not to go through with the suicide on November 1st (yesterday) as originally intended.

When I heard about the story, it made me think about my grandma who passed away following complications from surgery to remove breast cancer. This happened maybe 7 years ago. This experience in my life changed my perceptions on a lot of things: abortion, suicide, taking a person off life support (which is the decision that my family had to ponder). Essentially, it made me really think about the idea of an expected death and I wanted to share my thoughts on today’s blog post.

My grandmother was never a particularly healthy woman so the possibility of death following her surgery was probably pretty high. She came out of surgery and never regained consciousness. She didn’t die. She just stayed in a comatose state, on ventilators and with tubes coming out of her body. Her body was quickly becoming septic and it was clear that she would die. And yet, day after day, she didn’t– making the situation impossibly tough.

My whole family was in town and kept vigil at the hospital. My mom kept talking to my grandma’s unmoving body and to this day, I wonder if she really thought that my grandma would come out of this or whether she was just making sure that she knew, if even just subconsciously, that she was loved up to the moment of her passing. I remember that the hardest times throughout this period was going to bed and waking up in the morning. These were the moments when you were by yourself and the stress and sadness of the drawn out situation was unbearable.

My grandmother stayed on machines for 3 days when we started having discussions about taking her off life support. I’m a very left brained person: pure logic and typically very rational in all my decision-making. In an agnostic, impersonal situation involving an older person, body in sepsis, I would have said 100%: take the person off life support. They will not get better. They are essentially dead. This is a drain of our resources. This is a drain on the family.

But in the moment, it was hard. It was hard, sure, because this was my grandmother– the person who had essentially raised me since I was a child. But it was also very hard because in that moment as we were asked about a date, a date, what date do you choose– it made me realize that this was a never-go-back decision. And more so– this was a decision that you would always think is made for you and not one that a person, a human, a mortal has to make or really, has the power to make.

I am not a Bible thumping Christian. I went to Catholic school as a child and have great respect for the spirtuality and the focus that you gain from being religious. And this is what surprised me in that moment that we were asked to make this hard decision. I realized that we were being asked to make a choice that only God (or whatever all-mighty-power exists) can make for a person. I realized in the moment how much we were being asked to play God in deciding when a person leaves this earth. I was surprised that in this moment, me– the cerebral, data-driven, do-what-needs-to-get-done person– backtracked to something spiritual in this very hard time.

I don’t think that I’m taking a position about God or religion here– that just happened to be the case in my personal situation. What I do think I’m saying is that you never know. You can study and talk and research and feel like you know based on all these resources how you feel on a topic. You can stand there, high and mighty, and expound on your opinions. But until you are standing there, logic pushed aside and facing the real facts and feelings and emotions of a moment, YOU CAN’T KNOW HOW YOU WILL DECIDE.

I think this carries over into all hard decisions that people make in life. About deciding whether to carry a child to term. About whether to take your own life. I even think it relates to gay marriage. From the outside, everyone has an opinion. But really: SHUT THE FUCK UP. Because until you are standing there, with an unwanted fetus growing inside your person or looking ahead to a future where you will decay and become a burden on all you love and love you back, or you find yourself staring into the eyes of a person of your same gender and wanting to commit yourself and your life to that person in front of God and all your loved ones, you can’t really know what you will choose and you have no right to push onto others what you think you would do in that situation.

A side note on this story is that I’ve had to witness the pains of cancer on both sides of my family now. There was a period within 3 years where my father had cancer twice and then my grandmother (on my mother’s side) was diagnosed with it. I feel sometimes like my body is a ticking time bomb– that there is an inevitability of cancer that I can’t do anything to prevent besides trying to make good choices for myself now and as I age. And having been put through that, I know the pain on the family. I’d like to think that from these experiences, I view the Brittany Maynard story with a little more empathy and with a certain reverence for the importance of her personal decision. Sometimes hard choices have to be made. And none of us have any right to think that we know just how hard they are.

As a postscript on my grandma’s story: we had decided to take her off life support midday on a Thursday. Instead, she went on her own on Wednesday– sparing us actually making the call to have the life-saving services turned off. Though I was sad that the end had come, part of me was also relieved that it happened in its own time and without a date, a date, a date having to be decided.

UPDATE: Since posting this post earlier today, I’ve learned that Brittany Maynard did end up taking her life. May she rest in peace.

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