How Do I Make Sense of My Mother’s Decision to Die?

October 23, 2023

(The Atlantic) – Throughout her life, she had reveled in physicality, working as a park caretaker, ship builder, and costume designer. Now, plagued by a neurological disorder that would only worsen, she didn’t want to also endure postoperative wounds, vomiting from chemo, and the gloved hands of strangers hefting her onto a bedpan after surgery. Nor did she want to wait for the pain cancer could inflict. Instead, my mom said, she planned to request a prescription under Washington’s Death With Dignity Act, which allows doctors, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners to provide lethal drugs for self-administration to competent adult residents with six months or less to live.

As a doctor myself, I’ve confronted plenty of death, yet I still found myself at a loss over how to react to my mom’s choice. I know that the American tropes of illness—“battling to the end,” “hoping for a miracle,” being “a fighter”—often do harm. In clinical training, none of us wanted to unleash the fury of modern medicine upon a 98-year-old with cancer who’d just lost his pulse, but we all inflicted some version of it: ramming his purpled breastbone against his stilled heart, sending electricity jagging through his chest, and breaching his throat, blood vessels, and penis with tubes, only to watch him die days later. I didn’t want that for my mom; I had no desire for her to cling futilely to life. (Read More)