By Chris Haring

Val Lovelace, the Executive Director of Maine Death with Dignity, talks about her final visit with her brother David, who recently died of cancer in Wisconsin.

As her brother David slowly withered in a Wisconsin long-term care facility, Val Lovelace visited him for a final time. The 69-year-old suffered from mouth cancer, and radiation treatments had left him burnt and scarred, losing 80 pounds over four years.

“[I]n pain and dullness” – a death without dignity

In a recent opinion piece for the Bangor Daily News, Lovelace (the Founder and Executive Director of Maine Death with Dignity) shared the heartbreaking account of her brother’s eventual death, illustrating the emotional toll a prolonged terminal illness can exact.

“David’s days were reduced to sitting hunched in a chair, head lowered to his chest, holding a cloth to his mouth. He awaited his death in pain and dullness,” Lovelace said, noting that she couldn’t help but wonder if her brother would be suffering the same if he lived in her home state of Maine instead.

Aid-in-dying states remain in the minority

While medical aid in dying has been legal in Maine since 2019, Lovelace notes that 40 U.S. states still restrict access to physician-assisted death, denying individuals the autonomy to make crucial decisions about their own end-of-life experiences. Meanwhile, Wisconsin legislators have drafted a soon-to-be-introduced Death with Dignity bill, underscoring the urgency of her narrative.

As the aid-in-dying movement continues to grow nationwide, Lovelace’s story reminds us of the impact these laws – and the lack thereof – can have on individuals and their families. As folks like David continue to endure needless suffering, the need for broader legislative support for end-of-life options is clear.

“He should have had that choice”

Ultimately, Lovelace said she cannot know whether her brother would have chosen aid in dying under different circumstances, although, in her words, she “suspect[s] he might well have.” Regardless, she added, “The important thing is this: he should have had that choice.”

For more information on how to get involved in efforts to bring a Death with Dignity law to Wisconsin, please visit the state page on our website and check out our advocacy resources. Additionally, to learn more about medical aid in dying in Maine, please visit Maine Death With Dignity’s website.

Read the story below:

My brother’s death shows why we should have a choice in how we die

By Opinion Contributor
published: Nov. 14, 2023

Val Lovelace is a retired Navy veteran, interfaith chaplain and executive director of Maine Death with Dignity, an organization she founded in 2014.

I recently visited my dying brother in Wisconsin. David was 69 years old, dying from the brutal result of radiation treatment following cancer of the mouth.

He wasted from 185 pounds to 105. His 6-foot-2 frame showed little indication he had once enjoyed any degree of vitality. Severely burned and scarred from radiation two years earlier, he could no longer move his jaw or mouth. His neck and face were deeply scarred, his skin hypersensitive to touch and temperature. His right eye drooped from the socket, staring into his lap as though looking for something he dropped there. His mouth and lips oozed fetid, bloody saliva.

It’s important that you know all of this. This is what dying looks like for some people.

David’s days were reduced to sitting hunched in a chair, head lowered to his chest, holding a cloth to his mouth. He awaited his death in pain and dullness.

The facility where he stayed for the last two weeks of his life was clean and well-managed, the staff friendly and professional.

Geography prevented him from accessing a kinder death.

Forty states still fail to provide this gentle option to capable people dying with terminal conditions. How is it remotely reasonable that people should have to die under such circumstances?

When I consider the moral or ethical question of hastening death, I must include the measures of suffering and goodness involved in such decisions.

David suffered for nearly four years after his cancer diagnosis. Where is the goodness in that? What must a person endure to satisfy health care providers and lawmakers that they have struggled enough?

Who benefited from his suffering?

Some would argue that he did, psychologically or spiritually, benefit in some way through his own suffering. While there may be some reality in this theory, who but himself should be the judge of that? It was very clear during my visit that he had wrung all the personal benefit he could from his suffering long before his death arrived. Still awake and aware when I left him, although groggy, he lived another 11 days. He fell into a coma five days after I saw him and died six days later.

To their credit, the providers where he was housed cared well for him and kept him comfortable. They stopped food and hydration through his tube when he lost consciousness, as they should have. They continued his pain medication, also as they should have.

But was there any benefit in his suffering that did not require him to suffer?

There was none that I can discern. His daily stay at a long-term care facility had a financial benefit for that facility, for those who work there, and for those whose businesses benefit from the operation of such a facility. All of these required that he continue his suffering to reap those benefits.

In my mind it is immoral and unethical that anyone should benefit from the suffering of another.

In Maine, we can choose aid in dying under specific circumstances.

Whether he would have chosen this path, I don’t know. From conversations I had with him, I suspect he might well have. The important thing is this: he should have had that choice.

I’ve witnessed many self-determined deaths as a volunteer bedside attendant for Maine Death with Dignity, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2014.

To experience the courage and tenderness of family and friends who gather to embrace their dying loved one with stories, humor, tears and gratitude confirms for me what divinity in the flesh looks like.

David should have been able to choose how his final days would go. Everyone should have that choice.