Death With Dignity, a Christian Duty

**Trigger warning** This blog is going to include vivid descriptions of suicidal ideation.  If reading about this is troubling to you, please practice good self care and refrain from going further. As always, I am sending my love to you dear reader.

I have tried to steer my blog away from focusing too much on popular topics, I want this to be more about my experience that I know intimately rather than me throwing my two cents into an internet that is already full of screamed opinions.  When the story of Brittany Maynard hit the news, I was immediately tempted to write about it, but after sitting with that for awhile, felt like I was being directed more to hold her in prayer.  So thats what I did, avoided internet discussions about it, avoided reading many articles that weren't Brittany's words, and on November 1st I cried and prayed for her and her loved ones as she passed.  

I avoided writing about her at the time in part because I felt like it was cheap to use a dying person to make points one way or the other, and mostly because she was doing an unbelievable job on her own of expressing herself and unpacking the decision she faced with eloquence and courage.  What could I possibly say to add anything to that?

She is gone now, but the feeling to write about what happened is still there.  I'm not afraid of upsetting people with this post, I am slightly nervous about putting certain parts of my experience on the internet, but am mostly afraid of dishonoring her memory.  Lots of people, lots of Christians, have been choosing to chime in...some in ways that I find terribly insensitive.  Where my prayers have led me though, is that maybe this kind of discussion and exchange was what she would have wanted to see...maybe she would encourage me to share my piece.  I cannot imagine the courage it must have taken to have one's own death become a national "issue", and to know that one would become the face of many Death with Dignity before this intro gets any longer, I dedicate this blog post to Brittany Maynard.  

“I saw, also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.  In that also I saw the infinite love of God, and I had great openings"-George Fox
I had thought about it for a long time...which song to choose?  If oblivion was what was next, or an afterlife, what would help along with the transition? I finally found one, one that sounded beautiful, one that had no lyrics, only music and emotion.  It was John Williams "Cadillac of the Skies". (long time readers will remember I shared this one in an earlier post...foreshadowing)

I liked it because the movie it came from, "Empire of the Sun", got at part of what I was feeling, it was about the experience of a young British boy who lived in China during the Japanese invasion in WWII.  His world was torn apart, all the familiar things were gone, he was a changed person.  Innocence lost, no ability to return to the world he knew, but there was a glimmer of hope of his imagination in this song.

Yes, it would be perfect, the pain with the tiny sparkle of hope.  Now the more tricky part, which part of the song did I like the most? Or which part would make the most sense? Hmm...well accounting for at best around 30 seconds of consciousness, maybe between the 1:30-2ish timeframe would be a nice section.  Time to pull up that note onto my desktop too, no need to print it, save paper.  I did feel a little bad for whichever GFU person would find me. 

*click play*

I rolled the volume up on my speakers, and turned around to step up onto my desk chair. I fit the noose I had secured to the rafter around my neck, tightened it, and closed my eyes to listen to the music as the tears started to stream down my face.

I felt so tired of dealing with my situation day in and day out.  Tired of the pain, tired of the cutting, tired of not being strong enough, tired of being so lonely.  I hoped my family and friends would understand, some stories didn't have happy endings, and mine was just one of those ones...this was the best thing that I could do.  If God even existed...I hope that God would know that I tried, but that this was too much, and that I'm sorry.  

Nearing the 1:30 mark now...just one kick, just one quick one to get the chair out from under me.  30 seconds, and then peace.

I raised my leg...images of loved ones started flashing through my mind.  Focus on the music, just one kick and it will be done...but I would be causing them pain. But I want to end this so bad...but I can't hurt them.

"God DAMN IT!!!"

I lowered my leg and untied the noose, went over to my bed and sobbed into the pillow...why couldn't I just do it and get this over with?  Between the sobs I grabbed my phone, and dialed 1-866-488-7386.  A kind voice answered.

"Trevor helpline, who is this?"

Hey dear readers, I'm back : ) take a deep breath with me please ...breathe in....hold it...breathe out.

Another one, for good measure... breathe in...hold it....breath out.  

I know that was a super intense story, hard to read and believe me no fun at all to write.  That was one of the darkest points in my life...though it would not be the only time at GFU that I'd be close to committing suicide.  I feel like I need to share it, because it profoundly informs my feelings surrounding Death with Dignity laws. 

I have strong feelings around Death with Dignity laws.  

My home state, Oregon, has such a law, let me give you the gist of how it works:

If a person has a terminal illness and is diagnosed with less than 6 months to live, they can choose to have their doctor prescribe them medication that will end their lives.  This is done after thorough review to be sure the person is of sound mind and able to understand and make that decision, and to be sure that they are not being pressured or coerced by anyone else to choose that.  Finally, the last safeguard in the law is that the person must be able to ingest the medication under their own power, it absolutely cannot be given to them by a doctor or anyone else for that matter.  

This has been the law of my homeland since I was 4 years old, for as long as I can remember, and has been upheld by the Supreme Court after it was attacked by the Bush administration in 2006.  

In 2014 a woman by the name of Brittany Maynard, who was dying of aggressive brain cancer, came to Oregon in order to use this state law.  

The Pentecostal church that I was raised in taught that suicide was a sin, pure and simple.  The only one with the ability to give and take life was God, it was a horrible sin to play god in that way.  (though apparently war was ok sometimes....whatever!)

I will admit though, that even after leaving that church, I still was morally opposed to the idea.  Suicide felt like a really cheap way to choose to end things, I would have said even a little selfish.  It disregarded the feelings of those around you, it didn't seem consistent with a doctor's oath to "do no harm",  and denied the person the ability to experience every moment of life that they possibly could to the end through hospice care.  I mean...wasn't there also a certain dignity in suffering? 

Want to know when my mind changed? It was when I became a Quaker.

My strong support of this law now, is an outgrowth of my Christian convictions to love my neighbor, and I want to make the case that other Christians should be open to being similarly moved.

Now I opened with my own personal story, because it sets the stage nicely to explain the terminology we use.  My inner circle of friends know this, because I don't hesitate to correct this language problem when it comes up amongst them, but its worth making clear here.  Death with Dignity is not "Physician Assisted Suicide".

Death with not..."Physician Assisted Suicide"

If you want to insist on using that in the comments, keep it civil, but don't use it in my presence with the expectation to keep me around long as a friend.  I am very anti-suicide, and very pro Death with Dignity laws.

I have been suicidal.  I understand what it means to want to commit suicide.  I understand what it is to be a part of a community that looses tons of people every year to suicide.  Suicide is not the choice of a rational actor, it is the unfortunate result of an otherwise healthy person who is suffering from depression or other treatable mental illness.  That is what suicide is.  Suicide is tragic.

If you have not yourself been suicidal, or have walked with someone closely as they have been, or with someone who has taken their life, you have no business at all throwing around "Physician Assisted Suicide" so carelessly.

I think that often the most opposed people who insist on that term do so because it conjures up images of irrational actors, and gets a knee jerk reaction, I mean what person in their right mind wouldn't be opposed to "suicide"?  It reminds me of when Christians of a certain bent insist on "homosexual" instead of gay, or "illegal alien" instead of undocumented immigrant.

I'm going to continue to use Death with Dignity for the remainder of this blog.

Also, quickly to address an frustrating straw man that is put up a lot, Death with Dignity advocates do not in any way shape or form imply that people who don't choose to use the law are choosing something "less dignified"...c'mon, lets be real, even if you are opposed to the idea, you can't seriously believe that people who are in favor think that?...c'mon.

Now it is really easy to moralize on the macro level about Death with Dignity laws, but these laws aren't about how our society approaches death or the value of human life, it is about how an individual chooses to spend their last days with a terminal illness.  Oregonians haven't suddenly started to devalue human life, advocating for killing off people as soon as their "utility" is at an end!  I have very little patience for all the slippery slope fallacies that opponents of the law love to indulge in.  I'd even put forward that this law came into being because of the high value that Oregonians placed on human life, and after deep listening to the lived experiences of people who were in the midst of agonizing suffering with terminal illness.

There is also the "scarcity mindset" that opponents tend to foster, which is a non-unique problem, the "scarcity mindset" is a part of human nature that tends to ruin a lot of things.  For example, if I give that other person some of my food...I may not have enough for me! In this instance it most often manifests as, but if we have these Death with Dignity laws...then we won't seriously fund hospice or other palliative care!  Well, the truth is that it isn't an "either or" paradigm, and can easily be a "both and".  Oregon has a Death with Dignity law, and also has some of the finest medical research and care facilities in the country.  Hospice work is not undervalued in our state, not in the slightest. 

If you feel called to wax poetic about the virtues of extending life for as long as possible with end of life care through whatever suffering may or may not happen, by all means, shout it out at the street corner.  Convince as many people you can about the rightness of that decision, and I have no doubt it'll work for many of them.  However, if you're fine with the prohibition on Death with Dignity laws in most states, then you aren't really all that interested in convincing people to extend their lives.  What you are doing, is forcing the person to make the choice that you would make through the coercion of state power.  I'll be the first to admit that I'm totally down with using the coercive power of the state for lots of things, like desegregating schools, so if you're fine with doing that on this issue, at least have some integrity and own it.

Or to say it a simpler way, you'll often hear, "if you don't like gay marriage, don't have a gay marriage".

So, if you don't like Death with Dignity laws...don't ask your doctor to prescribe you life ending medication!  The later is literally as forced as the former when it is the law of the land.  Its real simple, and there are plenty of Oregonians who would be completely morally opposed to using the law themselves, and they get along just fine here.

I believe that Christians are called to be humane.

I've seen a good number of Christians bloggers go on about the dignity of suffering, and I agree there can be dignity in it.  What I will also say though, is that what feels like dignity to you may not feel like dignity to someone else, and their experience isn't more or less valid then yours.  Also, while its is real easy for you to throw out words as a temporarily-able-bodied person behind a keyboard, about how terminally ill people shouldn't be quickly looking for a way out...if you would not be willing to say those exact. same. words. at the side of a hospital bed as someone is seizing up in front of you, experiencing incontinence, wishing that they could end the pain just a little bit earlier than the couple additional months of being bedridden that their body has sentenced them to...I consider you a person of low integrity.

When non-human animals are grievously injured or ill, to the point that their quality of life will be irreparably changed for the worse, we consider it inhumane to keep them alive.

Now...that comparison will probably get quite a few knickers in a bunch, with shouts of "Oh my gosh look at this kid! Comparing animals to humans and he thinks we need to just put them out of their misery and euthanasia and blahkablahkablahblahblaaaaaahhh!!!". Calm down.  As I explained earlier, no one in our state administers this medication to people.  Patients often choose to get the prescription, and don't end up using it, there is no requirement that you must....I feel like this obvious point to Oregonians is lost to most of the rest of the country.

People...rational actors...moral agents...who are more than capable of sensing. feeling. that a non-human animal's suffering should not be extended, is sure as hell able to feeling when that time has come for themselves.

To force upon them the notion that they cannot know that, I believe is inhumane.  

I think the rote memorization of "suicide is sin" as children, has caused Christians to embrace an inhumanity that they wouldn't even visit upon their dogs.

Brittany had to retreat to Oregon to be treated humanely, and while I am extremely thankful that my home was able to be that place for her in her last days,  it should not be this way.  There are documented cases of people who wanted to use our law, but did not have the time or resources to be able to make it here.  It should not be this way.

Even if you are a Christian who couldn't possibly personally endorse this decision for yourself...what is the most Christ-like thing you can do with that conviction to those who are suffering? Force your will onto them in their finally days?  Or extend compassion, grace, and understanding their way? Can we have faith that the Holy Spirit will teach what it needs to without our policing?

Not only do I support the Death with Dignity law in my own state, but I will actively seek to see this become the law of the land in every state.  It should not be seen as an abnormal, shameful, or taboo decision at all.  God willing,  it will be just a piece of the conversation, one option of many, that some of us will likely face at one point or another.  

Thank you so much Brittany, for your light, which is now in eternity, surrounded by the infinite love of God.  


  1. Beautifully presented, A.J. As a former long term care social worker, I both applauded and dreaded the implementation of this law. I have sat with many people as they died. Some were very young-most were old-all were gravely ill. My dread was for the sake of the demented ones-who would never be able to take advantage of this law anyway. I was afraid that their loved ones would choose to put themselves out of the misery of dementia-a worry not applicable even after all of this time. My compassion won out. When my father lay dying and gasping for each breath, we knew he was dying and there was no saving him. I would gladly have helped him along. Again, as a close friend lay dying-gasping for hours. I would gladly have helped her to end at a more dignified point, but I knew that neither she nor my father were suffering. They were beyond that. We witnesses were the ones who suffered and we were going to survive it.
    I bless and stand in solidarity with those who chose to end their suffering before it moves beyond their control. There are many things worse than death. Gail Bumala

    1. Thanks for this piece of vulnerable sharing Gail! There is a strong possibility that I will have dementia in my later years, so I know at this point this isn't a law that I'll be able to use, but I often think of the people who will be there as witnesses.



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