There are few souls in this world who, by their individual selfless acts, make a significant contribution to millions. A vibrant and courageous 29-year-old woman did exactly that during her life and her death, and in doing so changed the course of the death with dignity movement forever.
Today we commemorate the life of Brittany Maynard, daughter of Death with Dignity National Center board member Deborah Ziegler. On November 1, 2014, after enduring months of pain caused by a terminal brain tumor, Brittany chose to end her suffering using Oregon’s first-in-the-nation Death with Dignity Act.
Education and Adventure
Brittany, born November 19, 1984 in Anaheim, California, graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and received her master’s degree in education from the University of California, Irvine School of Education in 2010. During the following four years she traveled extensively throughout the world, did volunteer work in orphanages and educational institutions, and got married.
A Terminal Diagnosis
In early 2014, when it became clear to Brittany that her brain tumor was a terminal diagnosis, she began planning to use the Oregon Death with Dignity Act in order to have a peaceful death. California, the state Brittany resided in, did not have a law allowing terminally ill patients to seek a physician’s aid in dying. So, with her family’s help Brittany relocated to Oregon and established residency.
Sharing Her Story
Brittany felt that this uprooting and searching for new physicians was both prohibitively expensive and patently unfair to all terminal patients who resided in states without a death with dignity law. She spoke with her mother many times about trying to get a law passed in California. It was this deep sense of injustice that drove Brittany, with some trepidation, to decide to open up her heart-breaking private life to the public.
Transforming the Movement
Brittany changed the face of the death with dignity movement. Her articulate and intelligent explanation of why she insisted on having some say in the matter of her impending death, and her calm resolve in the face of a ticking-time-bomb brain tumor diagnosis captured the hearts of many viewers. Suddenly, a whole new generation was looking at the impending death of someone in their own demographic and they wondered why their state legislators hadn’t provided laws that would allow them to seek aid in dying if they became terminally ill.
A Mother’s Promise
Brittany asked her mother, Debbie, to do whatever she could to pass a similar law in California so that others like her would not have to move from their homes and uproot the lives of their loved ones. Debbie vowed to dedicate her time and energy to fulfilling Brittany’s request.
In the wake of Brittany’s death, both Debbie and Death with Dignity Board President George Eighmey met with legislators in Sacramento a number of times and testified in support of the proposed End of Life Option Act. Debbie’s tireless advocacy and courage in sharing her story while still deep in mourning played a key role in moving lawmakers to pass the bill.
A New Law
In October of 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed an act which gave the 40 million residents of California the option of assisted dying should they become terminally ill.
Debbie shared these words with us on the anniversary of her daughter’s death:
Five years later, my broken heart brims with pride. Brittany’s raw courage in the face of an excruciating death has galvanized the death with dignity movement across the globe.
Something about the way my daughter gazed directly into the camera and shared her fears alongside her deep resolve to die in peace lifted and expanded end-of life conversations for the terminally ill, their families and friends.
“Today, the landscape of legislative activity around death with dignity is very different. California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia have joined Oregon, Washington, and Vermont in providing the right to die peacefully for their terminally ill citizens. Further, the debate in state legislative bodies across the country has opened for productive discussion.
“I miss my daughter with every fiber of my being but I’m also aware of the tremendous grace that her untimely death on November 1, 2014 brought to humanity. Brittany’s choice to share her painfully powerful story with the public came at a personal cost. Brittany was literally the bravest young woman I’ve ever known, so she faced the invasion of her privacy with candor and gritty determination and proceeded to change the course of history.”
A Lasting Legacy
Thank you, Brittany Maynard, for your bravery and Debbie Ziegler for loving Brittany so much you willingly gave of your time and energy to carry out your daughter’s wishes. Millions have benefited.
Deborah Ziegler shares how her daughter’s choice to use the Oregon Death with Dignity Act inspired her to advocate for assisted dying and, later, to join Death with Dignity’s Board of Directors. (Footage by Dawn Jones Redstone/Hearts+Sparks Productions. )