Guest column: Are we talking about death with dignity?

Sean Jeung
Guest column
Sean Jeung

What, exactly, does “death with dignity” mean? Does it mean being able to die without drooling? Does it mean being able to die on your own terms? Perhaps it means being able to choose the moment you die, thereby controlling as many aspects and details of the dying process as possible.

There are many ways we can be proactive about what our dying will mean to those we leave behind. We can write advanced directives that spell out our wishes for treatment in excruciating detail. We can create, orchestrate and even videotape our own memorial services. We can plan and prepay for our cremation and burial services. We can even write our own obituaries. However, all of those things require us to understand that one day all of those things will be necessary.

As a community, a state and a people, we usually discuss death with dignity in terms of what it might mean for someone else — perhaps someone who is old or very ill — without making it personal. Yet, to fully embrace and discuss the gravity and spirit of this bill, we have to be willing to imagine what it might mean to us personally; we must be open and ready to talk about our own mortality.

It feels at times that the discussion over death with dignity revolves too often around legalities, Hippocratic oaths and whether physicians are being asked to do something outside of their professional ethics. While that is certainly important, it should not be at the exclusion of discussing how we feel about dying. Often I hear people say, “I am not afraid of being dead. I am only afraid of what it will look like getting there.” People are afraid of the suffering that could be part of dying, and that should be part of the conversation.

Medical technology has devised so many ways to hinder dying that sometimes delaying death seems to become a goal in and of itself. When someone who has a terminal condition seeks treatment that is successful, is success defined as returning to health or just delaying the inevitable? If the latter is an acceptable goal, what is done with that time? Do we complement treatment with counseling and fully informing the person of his or her prognosis? Are we having the conversations, so critical to end-of-life care, about what people actually want when their time does come?

In the end, we like control and we would like to think we can control how we die. Yet — even before talking about how we want our dying to look and weighing the cost, financially and emotionally, to our loved ones — we have to be willing to talk comfortably about our own dying. Only then can we begin to speak rationally about death with dignity and physician-assisted suicide.

Sean Jeung is a board-certified chaplain at the Calaway Young Cancer Center and a Pathfinders counselor. On May 26 from 5 to 7 p.m., she will participate in a public conversation, along with Matthew Wynia of the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Ira Bedzow of New York Medical College, about Colorado’s Terminally Ill Individuals End-of-Life Decisions Act at the Aspen Jewish Community Center at 435 W. Main St. in Aspen.


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