The death of Brittany Maynard has become an issue that has spread rapidly across the world these past few weeks, eliciting debates and opinions ranging from compassion to intense criticism. Brittany Maynard was 29 years old when she chose a peaceful death over a painful, slow death involving worsening seizures and intense pain. She died surrounded by her immediate family and loved ones inside her own home on Nov. 1, just days after celebrating her husband’s birthday.
Maynard was diagnosed with brain cancer on New Year’s Day of 2014. She was given between four and 10 years to live. After several months, she was told she had stage IV astrocytoma, the most fatal and aggressive form of brain cancer, shortening years of life to merely months. Maynard and her husband decided to move from California up to Oregon, where the Death with Dignity Act was in effect. To her, the law offered the chance to die without lengthening misery.
There are those, however, that do not agree with Maynard’s decision. The Vatican made comments on Nov. 4, just days after her death. Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, stated: “This woman [took her own life] thinking she would die with dignity, but this is the error. Suicide is not a good thing, it is a bad thing because it is saying no to life and to everything it means with respect to our mission in the world and towards those around us.”
Maynard and her husband do not agree, and have spoken out against these views openly. “Death with Dignity allows for those who are in the predicament of suffering, that they can decide when enough is enough,” Maynard’s husband said. This, although controversial, is a valid view, in my opinion. Despite the obvious pain death brings, to some the pain of deteriorating before loved ones’ eyes is worse than death. If robbed of joy and doomed to suffering, an inevitable death is more precious sooner than it is later, and those four or five extra months are not worth living.
Many see Death with Dignity as being on the same level as suicide: a tragic, warped thing, claiming lives with its senseless lies about worthlessness, pain and lack of purpose. Suicide is often the result of severe depression, self-hatred and even medication side effects gone wrong. While the situations surrounding the two issues are not the same, they share a sense of wanting to end an unbearable pain and a feeling of what it means to face the prospect of death in a terrifyingly real way. The difference is that suicide is unnecessary, and a terminal cancer patient has already been given a fatal diagnosis. While every situation is not the same, to automatically equate Death with Dignity with suicide is not only inaccurate, it is insulting.
The Compassion & Choices website hosts a YouTube video of Maynard’s story, which had over 11 million views as of last week. In this video, Maynard shares her own thoughts and feelings of her diagnosis and choice to die peacefully, advocating Americans’ right to die with dignity and sharing her thoughts as she weaves her way through the emotions that come with death and grieving.
Many would say that her choice to die before her illness took her robbed her of precious life and time, but others—including Maynard herself—argue otherwise. She admitted that she did not want to die, but she knew it was unavoidable and did not want it to be agonizing. The knowledge of death without suffering to many in Maynard’s situation is an immense comfort. “I can’t even tell you the amount of relief that it provides me to know that I don’t have to die the way that is has been described to me that my brain tumor would take me on its own,” she said in her video.
“There is not a cell in my body that wants to die,” Maynard stated, and those are the most heartbreaking words of all.
Death with Dignity may continue to be controversial for many years to come, but Maynard’s attempts to advocate for it are piercing and compassionate, giving the world a chance to see mentally sound, terminally ill patients as people who deserve a different fate than a slow death or a painful ending, if that is what they so choose. Compassion & Choices’ initiative, “The Brittany Maynard Fund,” will continue to advocate for patients even after Maynard’s death, and she will not be forgotten.