My mother, Vee, was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2000. After weighing her options, she decided on treatment, and her cancer, thankfully, went into remission. In January 2014, however, she was enduring a lot of pain. I urged her to visit her doctor to find out what was going on. Vee received a heartbreaking diagnosis of nine malignant tumors: one breast, one lymph, and seven lesions in her bones, which led to micro fractures in her ribcage.
I thought I was prepared to support my mother at the end of her life. I had volunteered with hospice for nearly 30 years. I’d been there at life’s end with many people, including my husband, father-in-law, mother-in-law, and father. After witnessing my father’s seven-week death in the intensive care unit, I was inspired to train to become a death doula.
From the moment I started my work as a death doula in 2007, Vee and I talked daily about death and dying. She was always clear and accepting of the fact that all that lives will die. To support her wish to die consciously, I used my training and insights, from my hospice work and my experience as a death doula. Vee, however, rocked my boat. I thought I knew everything there was to know about dying.
It wasn’t until Vee’s nine-month-long dying process that I gave any thought to medical aid in dying. Vee was the only person I had been with at life’s end who had explicitly voiced that she wanted her doctor to give her something so that she could die peacefully in her own home.
Aid in dying is not an option in Idaho. To preserve her autonomy, Vee decided to cease eating and drinking. It took eleven excruciating days for Vee to die from voluntary starvation and dehydration. She kept asking, “Why is it taking so long to die?”
During my years volunteering at hospitals and with hospice, I have witnessed suffering and prolonged death. I have seen plenty of people in crisis. As I’ve sat with families of the dying, I’ve seen them tormented. Everything is out of their control and out of the hands of the dying patient.
I’ve experienced the same with my own parents. In 2007, I felt a similar lack of control for nearly two months while my father was dying in that ICU. Supporting Vee through her illness and ultimate death was a gift for both of us. And yet she still wished for a more peaceful, compassionate option.
My life’s work is to support the choice of the terminally ill to die a conscious death, with compassion and on their own terms.