Last year, my 89-year old mother surprised me. For most of the time I’d reported on health care news, she’d urged me to pursue/embrace just about anything she read about in Prevention magazine or on talk radio regarding breakthroughs. But, in the face of a diagnosis with an aggressive stomach cancer, she turned down all intervention and died at home with 15 of us around her on and off over her final days. When it came to her own final days, she demonstrated a calm, rational acceptance; none of the pursue-everything mentality that she’d shown so much interest in from decades of media messages.
Journalist Katy Butler had an essay in the Wall Street Journal the other day, “The Ultimate End-of-Life Plan: How one woman fought the medical establishment and avoided what most Americans fear: prolonged, plugged-in suffering.” The article is adapted from her book, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death.” Just one excerpt:
“Why don’t we die the way we say we want to die? In part because we say we want good deaths but act as if we won’t die at all. In part because advanced lifesaving technologies have erased the once-bright line between saving a life and prolonging a dying. In part because saying “Just shoot me” is not a plan. Above all, we’ve forgotten what our ancestors knew: that preparing for a “good death” is not a quickie process to save for the panicked ambulance ride to the emergency room. The decisions we make and refuse to make long before we die help determine our pathway to the final reckoning. In the movie “Little Big Man,” the Indian chief Old Lodge Skins says, as he goes into battle, “Today is a good day to die.” My mother lived the last six months of her life that way, and it allowed her to claim a version of the good death our ancestors prized.”
I haven’t read the book yet, but based on what we saw this week in the Wall Street Journal and, earlier, in the New York Times – “What Broke My Father’s Heart” - focusing mostly on her father’s stroke, this will be a good one to add to the Fall reading list.
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