We all watched with horror on 9-11 when so many people threw themselves out of the windows of the World Trade Center. They were people of all faiths and no faith. They were people of many national origins and ethnicities. And even though most faiths and traditions disapprove of suicide none of those who jumped were denied burial rites by any of their faiths.
All who wished, or whose families wished, received appropriate sacraments and were buried in sanctified ground. But how could this be with the strong prohibition against suicide? Simple. We all understand that human beings cannot be expected to stay in a burning room. It is primal–one of the two inborn fears that humans have.
We fear fire, and we fear falling. It’s ironic and tragic that those were the choices for many on 9-11. As far as we know all who had a choice chose falling and bringing a certain and quick end to their suffering.
Governor Brown just signed a controversial bill called “The End of Life Option Act” that is unfortunately and misleadingly referred to as the “Right-to-Die Bill” or “Assisted Suicide Bill.”
Remember the 9-11 jumpers were not suicides; they were escapees. They were escaping the anticipated pain of being burned alive. We understood. We all understood.
How is it we have such difficulties in understanding that some people today are living with real pain, right now pain and not anticipated pain? How can we not have the same understanding and compassion for those suffering from intractable, chronic and acute agony?
For some their very bodies are burning rooms in which they should not be required to stay. There are conditions that even our strongest painkillers can barely touch. There is pain so severe that the cost of knocking out is to be so narcotized as to have no quality of life.
The great question–and it doesn’t have an easy or glib answer–is when medical treatment prolongs living and when it prolongs dying? Most of us don’t want our lives cut short or our deaths prolonged. And it is not a fine line between the two but a big fat blurry line. This makes it a hard call; and it should be.
We certainly don’t want people to choose death for a transient condition or from treatable depression. We need some standards and processes. But we also need to understand that bills like California’s are not about the “right to die,” but the Right to Stop Dying. It’s not about ending living but ending dying.
Our wonderful modern medicine has worked miracles at keeping us alive, at fixing once untreatable conditions and curing once incurable diseases. But it has also made it sometimes too hard to die. It has fought diseases and conditions on the battlefield of the patient’s body. It is alright to hate the disease or condition, but we must also remember to love the patient.
Suicide is the wrong word to be associated with this issue. Suicide is about taking one’s own life or acting against one’s own interests. Sometimes, however, our interests are not to be in a burning room, and leaving the room is taking not a life, as in throwing it away, but taking control of one’s fate and asserting a rational, if painful, choice.
Ironically the fear of loss of control over our own life and death can lead to a premature exit. Most of us don’t want to be powerless over our fate and at the mercy of even the benignly motivated ministrations of others. I have seen people save pills and begin to prepare an exit because they feared losing their power and dignity. However, often when assured of the love and support, and yes, help of loved ones, they were, with a lovingly supported escape plan in place, able to go on living.
©2015 Jonathan Dobrer