OPINION: In support of end-of-life options
“Death comes creeping in my room, what should I do O’ Lord, O’ Lord?” (African American Spiritual).
The “D” word — no one likes to talk about it, but all of us will face it. As a pastor for 50 years, helping people face death has been a central part of my life in the church.
For some, death comes suddenly and unexpected. For others, like the terminally ill, death comes slowly — as if approaching from over the horizon. It can be seen coming and even be predictable.
Such was the case for my youngest brother, William Rollie Smith, who died of AIDS many years ago. I’ve been bedside for many deaths, and my brother’s was among the worst I’ve ever seen. So agonizing was his pain that he begged his doctors to amputate his aching limbs. Time and again he asked our mother and me to help him die, but we told him it just wasn’t an option. But it should have been.
In New York, the End-of-Life Options Act, introduced by New York state Sens. Diane Savino and Brad Hoylman earlier this year, would authorize medical aid in dying. Aid in dying gives a terminally ill, mentally competent adult the option to request a prescription for life-ending medication that they can self-administer — when and if they choose — to reduce suffering at end of life.
I am certain my brother would have wanted this option. The final three months of William’s life were the worst. He degenerated daily, painfully creeping toward his death. Once he accepted that death was inevitable, he simply wanted to die. And what a blessing the option of medical aid in dying would have been — to calm his fear of pain, and to end his suffering.
Even our mother, a staunch Baptist, wished aid in dying could have been an option for him, rather than him dying so painfully.
But my brother is not alone. Thousands of terminally ill adults in New York face similar ends. Many of my own congregants and friends spent their final weeks in terrible pain as they watched death descend upon them.
It is time we as a society recognize the cruelty of such deaths. We must offer a humane and self-empowering option for terminally ill adults to end their suffering — we must authorize medical aid in dying.
We must pass this important legislation, because the terminally ill face a choice, not about death, but about life. When we are preoccupied with the fear of a painful death, we cannot spend our final days to the fullest. In my experience in helping others, fear of prolonged pain and suffering often creates greater anxiety and distress than the prospect of death itself.
When dying persons have alternatives — a final measure of control — they feel a sense of comfort and peace that allows them to truly live during their last days. This is the greatest gift we can grant our dying friends and loved ones.
Some years ago, I counseled John Edson, M.D., of Brooklyn, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He didn’t want to die, but he didn’t want to waste away either — his wish was to “die easy.” He asked my congregation to pray for his death because he knew that only death could spare him. We must spare others the fate suffered by my brother, the doctor, and so many more, by making medical aid in dying an option.
As for me, I am comfortable in my belief that death is not the worst thing that can happen to me. Wherever God is, that’s where I want to be. I am prepared to give my consent to death when my time comes, and when it does, I want another option in the end. And I will be with God.
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