The young Californian had been diagnosed eleven months before with terminal brain cancer. Brittany Maynard refused hospice care, moving instead with her family to Oregon, one of five states in which assisted suicide was legal.
Relatively little in the media’s extensive coverage even hinted at the acute anxiety that bubbled to the surface each time she spoke of her disease. People hailed her as fearless: “For the past 29 years, Brittany Maynard has lived a fearless life — running half marathons, traveling through Southeast Asia for a year and even climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. So, it’s no surprise she is facing her death the same way.”
Maynard poignantly defended her painful decision to end her life, describing her cancer as a “terrible, terrible way to die.” Patients who suffer from stage four glioblastoma face total deterioration of mind and body occurs in mere months. In less than half a year, they lose their ability to walk and speak and to control their urinary and bowel movements. Their alertness will diminish in conjunction with cognitive impairment. The devastation is complete.
The woman whose face was splashed across the internet and print media for weeks would be nearly unrecognizable six months later. This bright, attractive, vivacious young woman would die hundreds of painful deaths as she moved toward death. She would become totally dependent on the loving care of others. If ever a compelling case for assisted suicide were to be made, it surely would be Maynard’s.
Choosing to Suffer Less
“I’m dying, but I’m choosing to suffer less,” she said in explanation of her decision, “to put myself through less physical and emotional pain and my family as well.” Indeed, People reported, “Maynard says it’s easier to bear the pain now that she knows she is in control. . . . That’s left her space to make the most of her remaining days.”
What I find puzzling is the author’s assertion that an absolute sense of control over diminishment, suffering, and death gives meaning to one’s life and capacitates one for joy. To kill oneself is to say, at least implicitly, “I am better off dead because my life no longer has value.”
Maynard wanted to die on her terms, as painless and as uncomplicated as possible. She wanted to die comfortably in her own bed, surrounded by her family and friends, in control of her body and mind. We all want a death like this. Indeed, Catholics petition for this kind of death every night in Compline when we pray, “Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” This certainly includes a death without suffering, but it does not foreclose the possibility that a peaceful death may be a painful one.
With the advance of medical technology and utilitarian idealism, this may become for many the only kind of acceptable death. Unhinged from a scriptural and ecclesial imagination, the idea of a peaceful death has been reduced merely to the absence of pain, and a painless death has begun to chip away the value of a life with suffering.
Likewise, death has begun to chip away at the value of life, and in this configuration death is easily commodified. If we can’t master death, at least we can control it, make it more efficient and convenient, and make it involve less suffering, less anguish. And yet . . . .
Maynard’s own words betray the depth of her anguish and anxiety — of our anguish and anxiety over death. She explains that being “able to die with my family with me, to have control of my own mind, which I would stand to lose — to go with dignity is less terrifying.” In this context “dignity” is reduced to an exercise of autonomy and control.
Reasons to Go On Living
An early death forecloses possibilities of a more profound experience of love in midst of suffering. Like many of us, Maynard would have eventually been stripped of her abilities, perhaps even her mind. She would have been unproductive, unattractive, and uncomfortable.
She would just be. She would just be accompanied by her husband, her mother, her step-father, her friends. She would just be cared for by hospice nurses and doctors. She would just be valued because she is present in a web of relationships. She just would be washed, dressed, cried over, kissed, held. She would just be loved.
“She Would Not Just Be” is a shorter version of Perfect Love Casts Out Fear, which appeared on Ethika Politika.