Thursday, June 21, 2012

An Honorable Death

When I’m bored, I watch documentaries.  I’ve watched documentaries I shouldn’t admit to watching (doc about the world air guitar championships, anyone?).  Last week I watched a doc in which a filmmaker set up a camera pointing at the pedestrian walkway on the golden state bridge (It‘s called The Bridge, and it‘s streaming on Netflix if you want to watch it).  He had it set up for 2 years for the purpose of filming, and then investigating suicide jumpers.  All in all, I believe he captured 8 people jumping from the bridge, 7 of which died.  He was too far away to be able to stop them, but once they jumped, he’d find out who they were, then interview their families, trying to dissect suicide to see what we can learn about it.  Suicide is a fascinating issue.  I deal with it at work on occasion, and have experienced it within my family.

Tonight I had dinner in Boulder with my Uncle Kirk, who is awesome.  He has a PhD in geology, and his house powers itself.  Cool, right?  At dinner, were got to talking about death, geriatrics, health care, that kind of thing, and it brought up something I think is worth discussing.  To put it bluntly, the question goes something like this:

Wouldn’t it be preferable for the very elderly or the very sick to give the people in their lives a break, and take their own life?  Or conversely, is all the money and effort we put into extending the human life really worth it?

If you spend much time reading history books, or watching nature shows, you’ll notice a pattern.  The tribe does not allow an individual to allow the group to perish.  If wolves are chasing a herd of buffalo, and they don’t catch one quickly, one of the strong buffalo will gore the weakest one right in the ass, causing it to fall on its face, and allowing the wolves to kill it while the herd escapes.  In nomadic tribes, the elderly knew when they were doing more harm than good, and would wander off into the woods to die so that the tribe could keep moving.

In today’s society, we’re obviously not nomads, and technology has come a long way.  But are we so different?  Sure, when grandpa breaks his hip, it doesn’t mean it’s time to get him a blanket until he dies like it used to.  But have we gone too far?  Have we become a culture that worships human life, even if that life drags down the lives of everyone else?

My uncle told me that almost every friend he has is either dealing with the recent death of a parent, or is suffering because of the extension of a parents’ life.  Whether it be the parent has dementia, and requires costly hospitalization, or the parent has alzheimers and the child selflessly offered to let the parent live with the child - in either case, the child’s quality of life is being dramatically lessened, and for what gain?  Is this what we want for our children?  Do I want Taylor to spend her retirement money paying for someone to change my bed pan, or to pay for a half dozen rounds of chemo so she can watch me be in pain for a few extra months?  Do I want her to live the rest of her own life remembering how terrible the end of my life was?  I’d like to think I’d put her interests ahead of mine, but I don’t know what that means.

I’m not sure if I think the sick and elderly should commit suicide to ease the pain of their families, but I don’t think it’s all that crazy an idea.  Historically, people knew when it was their time, and took it upon themselves to do the right thing.  But with modern technology, combined with the ridiculous cost of health care, at what point is suicide the morally right thing to do, if only to stop dragging down the rest of one’s family?


  1. I get what you are saying about sometimes valuing life long after it actually holds value, but who gets to make that decision? Your burden is someone else's desire and need....I don't know what it's like to have amazing parents who have always been there for me in every and invested their entire lives into making mine worthwhile and just better...but if I did I think I would want to give back to them and cherish all the time I had with them as long as they had the fight to keep living. I think it would be not only worth it but the decent thing to do to love and care for them the way they had me. I think that would be a lesson worth teaching to taylor.

    1. You care for, value, and love those who have cared for you. You don't throw them in the trash just because they get sick and can no longer care for themselves in the way they once did. You live in such a way that if you ever do get sick you will not have to go off and die alone because you will have people surrounding you who will not consider the "burden of care" to be a burden because they will want to have the moments with you long after you yourself decide that you are done with the fight to have more moments.

  2. My reflections aren't really about how the family members should treat the dying, but how I, as someone who will probably get old and sick someday, may want to think about throwing the family a bone. Nobody gets to tell a parent to take off - but the parent can certainly make that choice for themselves, if they think it's the right thing to do.

  3. I thought the idea of euthanasia appalling until I worked in an old folks home. My perspective changed after that experience. So many people just ready to let go, begging to let go, suffering every day and not scared of death... but ready. I came to the conclusion that I can't judge a person, especially a person who has led a full life, who feels like they're ready for whatever comes next. I feel that in our western culture we've distanced and distorted what death really is... it happens to all of us, it's part of the natural cycle and order of things. But it's something that we greatly fear, for ourselves, for others, for those we love. So we try to delay it as much as possible. I found this article interesting about what physicians do when faced with a terminal diagnosis. The article seems to say that those in the know make different choices than the rest of us and for good reason.