Jeanne McGowan-Boucher is a retired social worker in Palm Harbor, Florida.
My husband Ron and I were always supportive of death with dignity. We had seen too many relatives and friends die in horrible ways, and we both decided we wouldn’t go that way. We both believed in the right to control one’s life as well as one’s death and in going out on our own terms when we were ready.
In October 2014, at age 75, Ron was diagnosed with an aggressive, terminal lung cancer and given four to six months to live. Being a strong, proud, well-educated man—he had taught psychology at a high school in Massachusetts before retiring—he well understood what he would face in dying from cancer.
Unfortunately, we live in Florida where it is illegal to die with dignity. Ron went through four months of severe pain, debilitating symptoms, and slowly wasting away physically and mentally. Every day was agonizing for him. There’s no easy way to describe it. Hospice did the best they could in controlling the pain, but he still experienced continual torture despite the interventions. Most of all, he was angry that he didn’t have the option to decide when and how to die.
There were moments when his incredible sense of humor shone through. He spent 10 days in hospice before dying.
A few days before he died, he had somehow crawled to the bathroom on his own. When our daughter Christine and I came in, he looked at us and asked, “Are there any dead people out there yet?”
“Not yet, Dad,” Christine said.
Ron raised one eyebrow, as only he could do, and said, “Well, there should be. This is taking too damn long! It shouldn’t be this hard to die.”
We’d been together for 35 years. We talked about moving to Vermont, but he declined so fast as the cancer spread that we ran out of time. As his wife, I will never recover from the experience of watching him in pain and knowing that I could not help ease it or give him his last request. Had death with dignity been legal, he’d have been able to die peacefully on his own terms, without pain and without losing control of his faculties and bodily functions. It would have been the choice he wanted.
As Americans we have choice in every part of our life except death. Why should government get in-between a dying individual and their wishes? Having the choice of saying when, where, and how to die when you have a terminal illness should be an individual’s right.
Death with dignity helps families do all the things we do so badly as a society: come together, talk about life and love, say goodbye, and come to terms with death.