Thursday, Jun 30, 2016
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Op-Ed Columns

Allowing people to die with dignity, in peace

AMERICANS in general don't seem to be very good at deciding what is the best way to die.

One night when she was already in her 80s, I sat up past midnight with my mother while she told me what she knew about what it was like to die. She said she had sat with no fewer than seven of our relatives over the years as they left this world.

She said that from what she had seen, seven times, there was nothing to fear, there was no pain involved, death was in fact welcomed as an end to pain in most cases, if the person dying had any sense of what was happening. They sighed, their eyes might open for a second, and then they left.

America - and the world, for that matter - has had the question of how to die thrust in their faces by two current, recent cases, and perhaps by a third, if they are aware of it.

Terri Schiavo died Thursday. I have no desire to add to the cacophony of talk that preceded, surrounded, and followed that event. I will say only that it lacked one of the essential elements of what I consider a death should ideally include: dignity, although Ms. Schiavo blessedly didn't know that her passing lacked it as far as we know.

Pope John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyla, died Saturday at 84, after a long death watch. The Holy Father couldn't talk anymore; one of his signature characteristics had been his ability to converse and to bless us in many languages. He moved toward the end to the feeding tube stage, with which Americans who followed the Schiavo case had become distressingly familiar. It was tragic that someone who had been powerful and great, as this Pope had been, was on very public view at a point when the level of failure of his body was the only remaining pertinent point about him. Dignity was sometimes denied.

A third person who may be close to the end, in a hospital in Europe, is Prince Rainier of Monaco, he who won the heart of Grace Kelly, Princess Grace. He is now 81 and apparently dying. There was one pre-hospitalization photograph of the prince in the press. He looked very peaked. The paparazzi pursue the Monaco royal family 24/7. The Europeans sometimes do this better than we do.

There will be no photographs or footage of Prince Rainier struggling to try to speak, or with his mouth gaping open. Nor will there be tiresome politicians desperate for media attention grasping microphones and babbling in front of cameras at the Cardio-Thoracic Center in Monaco. The man will retain some dignity as he leaves us.

So what should we want? First of all, no pain. There is no need or reason for it. At that point in one's life, the educative function of pain has long since been made redundant by events.

Second, dignity. If a person is famous, or notorious, that requirement places an obligation on us - the voracious, skeptical, carefree media - as well as on everyone else involved.

Third, to the degree that the person who is dying is aware enough to know who comes to see him, there should be free access to him by the people he really cares about, not those who just want to be seen with him. The visitors should include family, close friends, and clergy, if that aspect of life and death is meaningful to him.

Finally, if possible, the person dying should have some say in when it is that he has had enough of the whole affair and wants to cash in his chips. I am aware that this is considered by some to be suicide and thus a mortal sin, never mind what some insurance companies might make of it. But here again, in my view, dignity and discretion should be first and foremost.

Now, all in all, I would have to say that none of us covered ourselves with glory in the Terri Schiavo affair. Her family fought each other bitterly and publicly. I don't know why - and I don't care - but their actions and media coverage of them denied her virtually all dignity at the end of her life and in her death.

The idea that Congress and perhaps the President of the United States are going to return to this issue when they return from their Easter break is obscene. Never have the words "Rest in Peace" had more validity.

We know that the media are the media. But why are we so prepared to do just about anything to get that coverage? Because people are ready to gather at Pinellas Park, or in St. Peter's Square, are we absolutely obliged to crawl all over them and record their every banal comment on the subject of the person dying? And, of course, a television camera, a microphone, and a reporter clutching a notebook while shouting questions attracts the Jesse Jacksons of this world like dead pigeons attract rats and crows.

People deserve to be able to die with dignity, free of pain, in peace, with those whom they love around them. The rest of us have a bounden duty to let that occur.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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