Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Yesterday, I was Upset

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I needed to stare at the water to calm down. Picture from this morning.

The sad sad case of the woman in Florida who has irreversible brain damage as a result of a heart attack because of an eating disorder bothered me a lot. Personally, as an adult, I have been through the deaths of three grandparents, my father, my brother in law, and both of my husband's parents. I do not count the death of my Grandpa Lane because I was only four and I don't remember it too well. (I do remember my parents did not take me to the funeral and little Janet was frightened to be left with a woman I did not know.) I have been an adult for 30 years so on average, I have been involved intimately with the death of a beloved family member every four years. It is never easy; I had moments of sobbing for every single one--the worst being the death of my father who was only 57. He suffered four months after a massive heart attack before he was finally at peace.

My Grandma Lane suffered for four years after having a stroke. Her mind was as sharp as ever but she was paralyzed on one side and miserable for four long years. She wanted to die. I remember clearly at the end she had a series of strokes. I will never forget the look of disappointment on her face when she awoke from one of them. There was no question that she did not want to be here any longer. I believe she had seen heaven and had been jerked away. A few days later she was finally at peace. She was 82.

My Grandpa Robinson suffered for five years from Alzheimer's until quickly everything failed and he died at age 78. It was an icky five years beginning with horrible things like trying to flush all of the garbage down the toilet and ending with a vegetative state in a wheel chair. But at least it was only five years in the nursing home instead of the 10 years for my Alzheimer's affected mother in law.

My Grandma Robinson's death was one of the best, yet still not perfect. But with her, I had the wonderful gift of being with her when she passed on. The nursing home knew she was nearing the end. Her mind had not been with us for two years but she still stubbornly decided she would no longer eat; she was 92. My Mom was on a trip so I spent the last moments with her and it was a great honor. I believe she knew I was there and I told her she had our permission to leave us. She seemed to need that permission. I watched her eyes flutter like she had seen the face of God and she was at peace. Truly, it was beautiful. She died simply of old age.

My father in law seemed to manage to die in the way he wished. We actually laugh about it now and frankly, we are not certain he did not take his own life. He had indicated to us many many times that he did not want to be a burden nor would he be able to stand to be disabled. Dr. Kevorkian was his hero. Five years ago, he died peacefully in his sleep after only two weeks of discovering he had some major medical problems. He was 82, supremely confident, and had lived a completely normal life until then. He had paid for and made all of his funeral arrangements the week before. It was a shock to us but comforting to know he was calling the shots. Everyone always called him by his nickname, Zip, and that about says it all.

Two months after my father in law died suddenly, my brother in law died of a brain tumor at age 53. He had been fighting the good fight for two years; he desperately wanted to live. But glioblastomas have no mercy and are incurable. This death was terrible and sad and out of the blue. My brother in law was one of the nicest kindest people that ever lived and this was not fair. It was NOT fair. We managed to get him cutting edge treatment at the Univ. of WA but it probably only extended his life two or three months. No decisions had to made at the end other than keeping him comfortable with pain medication.

My mother in law died two months ago after suffering from Alzheimer's for 15 years. I wrote about it then on this blog. All of these deaths and funerals were in Helena, Montana--every one of them. I have learned that death brings peace and resolution. Death eventually comes to us all; we have no choice and it is nothing to be feared. Sometimes death doesn't come soon enough but other times it comes too soon. Clearly, those who are able to make the choice to end suffering, like my father in law did, leave a great gift to their families. It allows family members to move on and build from there. My sister in law is now very happy and having the time of her life. She thought her life was over when her husband of over thirty years died of a brain tumor but she has met someone new. Her life has moved on. Likewise, my mother, also a widow in her early 50's, has lived a full and happy life traveling to all parts of the globe.

In all of the above situations, family members were of one mind that no extreme measures should be taken to prolong the inevitable. I urge everyone to discuss with their family members how they wish the end to be. Fill out a Health Care Directive, known as a living will, have it signed by two non-family members, have it notarized and give a copy to your doctor. Do it today. Personal family matters such as this do not belong in our courts and the United States Congress certainly has no business constitutionally getting involved. At least, that is what I learned in law school.

To me, this Florida woman's parents are unwilling to let go and are prolonging their grief and misery. I feel so sorry that their daughter's picture is plastered all over the newspapers and TV. What an invasion of her personal privacy and dignity! My advice to them would be to tell their daughter they love her and give her permission to go to the wonderful Place of Peace that I saw in both of my Grandmothers' eyes. Death, by definition, is an end point and brings resolution and allows everyone to move on. The spectacle needs to end.

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Peacefulness--taken this morning.