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“Death is a part of the achievement of life.” -Mother Teresa

sovereignty

I’ve been thinking about the Aid In Dying law that passed in Colorado by nearly a 2/3 margin and the resistance it is getting. I’ve been exploring my own feelings about people rejecting the law based on what they describe as a caring gesture. I don’t doubt that people are concerned about other more physically vulnerable people being taken advantage of; this is a valid concern. However, having been a family therapist for almost 30 years, I understand that if a dynamic of overpowering an individual already exists in a family, this pattern will likely happen, regardless, as the family member becomes more vulnerable. Haven’t we all seen the elderly or infirmed be unjustly treated as part of an unconscious pathology in a family? Most of us have heard the stories or witnessed family members overriding the dying person’s wishes, overpowering the medical staff with threats, overt or covert. Fortunately, the Colorado law was crafted well with many safeguards for protecting the vulnerable. Otherwise, I would not have supported it.

Another concern I’ve heard voiced is that the circumstances surrounding death is God’s will. Okay, so does that mean extending life through technological advances is God’s will also, even if that means prolonging peoples’ suffering, when the quality of life is diminished, and death is imminent? I don’t mean to diminish the value of suffering; I have evolved considerably through my suffering, but I also know the difference between productive suffering and needless suffering, for myself, and I believe everybody should have the right to choose what they can tolerate for themselves. Through much inner psychological and spiritual work prior to and accelerated by this progressive, terminal form of multiple sclerosis, I have cultivated an inner capacity for suffering that other people may never need, or as Buddhists call, “turning poison into medicine.” Sometimes this transcendence only happens at the end, sometimes not until we crossover. Suffering can be an obstacle to transcendence or it can be a catalyst. We must remember that our soul is in charge. I believe everyone in the dying process should have the right to choose how they make their final transition. The Aid In Dying law allows us the autonomy to decide what our bodies and spirits need.

Many opponents to this law call it “assisted suicide.” As a licensed psychotherapist, I evaluated suicidality in people. People who are suicidal want to die. Most people I know of who are dying and considering the prescription want to live; they just want to have some choice in how they die.

Whose bodies are these, anyway, once we have passed the age of majority? My belief is we have  sovereignty over our own bodies if we are mentally competent. Who are we to judge what decisions other people make or do with their own human bodies? One may judge another for eating meat or for not eating meat. Jack Kornfield, author and Buddhist teacher, once said, “Vegetarians are just not sensitive enough to hear a broccoli scream.”

I have been told that I am the perfect candidate for our Aid in Dying bill. Why am I any more perfect than the person dying from cancer with a family that believes all medical means available should be used to prolong their loved one’s life, which also prolongs their suffering, if that isn’t their wish? What would it take for the dying person to be able to choose a better of quality of death, or what is called a good death?

I understand that this requires a paradigm shift in a culture that is death phobic, as Stephen Jenkinson, the author of Die Wise – A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, so aptly posits. I understand that there can be a slippery slope determining one’s mental status and true stewardship of their body when dementia is a part of the picture. I understand the opponents of Colorado’s Aid In Dying care about others and they fear the vulnerable might be coerced, but this caring should not usurp the dying person’s power of choice, whether one would make the same choice for themselves or not. The law provides safeguards.

If our culture is to become more accepting of death as a part of life, in deed as well as word, we need to confront the fact that we will all die. When we had a more agrarian society, chickens, turkeys, and other animals were sacrificed on a daily basis. On our farm, if we had been more aware, we would have thanked Franklin the turkey for giving his meat so we could live. Actually, the coyotes got Franklin and I was devastated as I went to the grocery store for a Butterball turkey for Thanksgiving, or its organic equivalent. I learned quickly not to name the poultry and make them pets. I am a part of this death phobic culture and perhaps that is why I am so outraged. I feel the resistance internally, the old pattern leaving as the new pattern is forming.

We learn early in our culture that death is bad. When Jordan was two and I was feeding him a lamb chop and Mary had a Little Lamb was his favorite song, he looked at me with tears of betrayal in his eyes and asked me, “Did somebody chop a lamb!?” It was one of those moments mothers fear. I told him that we could thank the lamb for giving its life so we can live. Jordan cried his eyes out. Perhaps if we had been giving thanks for everything that died for our meals, even the broccoli, his heart may not have been so broken. Maybe heartbreak is unavoidable and we need to feel the grief fully when a living being loses its life, whether from cancer, neurological disease, or an elk running free on our land that was needed to feed a family.

I wonder what other deeply held unconscious beliefs get triggered if one who is dying is allowed sovereignty over their body.

Probably my greatest revelation with this cause is that if I imagine having the prescription and I have the legal right to choose, I am freed up to reflect on my life—what is incomplete, what regrets I might have, and finally, whatever is in the way of completely letting go is illuminated. I am free to move to the next level of dying, emotionally and spiritually. I wonder if this is the real issue behind the collective resistance to allowing everyone choice. Perhaps accepting, but truly accepting, that what is at the core of the resistance of allowing everyone choice is our collective fear of facing our own mortality!

Perhaps the patronizing, paternalistic professing of care for others is a cover for the realization that we are not in control of anything, much less our physical bodies. When every state in the union finally accepts Aid In Dying for all individuals, maybe, just maybe, our culture will finally allow death to take its rightful place as a significant part of the Circle of Life.

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Love and grief are two sides of the same coin. – Derived from talk by Stephen Jenkinson 

GriefThe hint of a life-threatening illness when I was thirty-five years old was almost too much for this young, vibrant woman to bear. In retrospect, I have deep compassion for my younger self’s initiation into this accelerated curriculum and I now know how essential it is for my soul’s evolution. Coming to terms with my mortality at that age was a tall order, living a mortal life while being in touch with its transitory nature was almost more than I could bear and has taken me more than a decade to integrate.

When I really think about it, how can we live fully if we cannot contemplate our impermanence? How can we fully live if we can? The human condition is quite a paradox. This is why mystics acknowledge that being human is not for the faint of heart. There is crescendo and there is de-crescendo, inhaling and exhaling. How do we  be with this human condition that feels so out of control to our egos without becoming completely overcome with fear? How do we not connect these fears with the cultural epidemic of our time – fear of death? How do we hold death with equanimity, as truly a part of life?

What I have come to understand is the only way to hold both is to feel  it all. Feeling the difficult feelings in our culture is not encouraged. Numbing or distracting behaviors are pervasive. Allowing oneself to sink into the grief of this illusory existence, to essentially face one’s fears of death is not an easy undertaking. The pun is intended. In my experience, only by following grief and despair to completion can the heart lighten and the healing power of humor emerge.

Grief is better tolerated than despair, in my experience. Despair implies hopelessness. I guess the question is: “What are we hoping for?” Are we hoping for immortality? It is painful for me to be with someone who is dying, but wants to live at any cost. The ego wants to convince us that if we succumb to these feelings, we will never get out. There are so many archetypal dramas in literature that demonstrate this primal fear. When one finds the courage to bear the grief, liberation is assured. Allowing oneself to fall completely into grief is the only way through this dense, vibrational field. Despair can be treacherous, becoming an impenetrable wall if you are at all ambivalent about your leap. I liken it to bouldering. You cannot have ambivalence when jumping from one boulder to another; you cannot look down, you just leap focusing on the boulder ahead.

Stephen Jenkinson, once the leader of palliative care counseling at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, has written extensively about the prevalence of “death phobia and grief illiteracy – how they distance us from one another, our planet and our world crisis.”

Grief can become a wall or it can be a portal to a deeper way of Being. Once we have come to terms with the illusory nature of the personality as our totality, the fulcrum tips. Only by leaping fully can our toe touch the boulder of the numinous.