Melissa Wood is natural health professional in San Antonio, Texas.
My daughter, Christine Whaley, died of melanoma in August 2018 after using California’s End of Life Option Act to die with peace and dignity. She shared her story publicly in newspaper stories and interviews with the characteristic grace, humor, and humanity with which she lived her short life.
I had the privilege of watching her blossom from an introverted young girl to a talented and courageous woman of many gifts. I am grateful to share my memories of her and how her commitment to death with dignity inspired me to become an advocate.
A Woman of Many Talents
Christine’s life hero was her grandmother, Marsha, a Renaissance woman with many interests and talents. Christine forged herself into that mode, taking dance classes, learning to paint, mastering her favorite recipes (I will always remember her Chile Verde), excelling in competitive speech and debate, and making the most of every day.
I will always cherish the memories I have of her doing the many things she loved and of the good times we had together. But I find that I took many of those moments for granted back then, because your children are not supposed to die before you.
The First Diagnosis
Christine received her first cancer diagnosis in 2012: malignant melanoma. It came as a shock, and I found myself contemplating what I should do in the face of this new reality. I quickly realized Christine wouldn’t want me to make significant decisions about my life based on the trajectory of hers.
To no one’s surprise, Christine took charge of her treatment plan and fought like a warrior through physical pain, intense clinical trials, and the emotional burden of living with a terminal disease. She was no stranger to cancer’s devastating impact; both of her grandparents had died of cancer and she witnessed their agony as the disease destroyed their bodies. If an option existed to ease her suffering and spare loved ones emotional pain, Christine would use it in a heartbeat.
California Enacts Death With Dignity
In 2015, Christine’s home state of California passed the End of Life Option Act, the fourth aid-in-dying law in the United States at the time. When she heard the option was available, Christine vowed to use it should her prognosis be shortened to six months or less: a requirement of the law. As it turned out, she reached that tragic milestone last summer.
Even though Christine was well-informed about the process of accessing the law, she encountered obstacles in obtaining the medication. As she shared in the stories published by the San Luis Obispo Tribune, she could not find doctors in San Luis Obispo County willing to approve her requests; without that approval, she could not get a prescription. Eventually, she had to travel to Los Angeles to make the required in-person requests.
Legal Limbo, Then Relief
She had made it through the first steps of the process when she encountered a new obstacle. In May 2018, a California judge, influenced by religious groups opposed to the state’s aid-in-dying statute, invalidated the End of Life Option Act. This left Christine and other terminally ill patients in limbo, with no way of knowing whether the state Attorney General’s push to restore the law would be successful at all, let alone in time for them to access the law.
The next month, an appeals court stayed the ruling, allowing patients to obtain prescriptions while the case continued. Christine finally picked up her medication on August 8. She decided she would take it August 25.
One Final Letter
I knew I would not be able to see Christine before she died, so I wrote her a letter, excerpted here:
It’s hard to find all the words that I want to say right now. How do I, or anyone else for that matter, ever say goodbye forever to their daughter?
I think of what a gift you were then [as a child] as you are now and how you have blossomed into a wonderful, beautiful, and strong woman. Somehow you have found a way to live a lifetime in your abbreviated stay in this world. You’ve inspired and touched so many people with your love, friendship, perseverance, and humor…and you will be oh so missed.
It will take me awhile to recognize this world again, without you in it, but I will get there someday.
Give yourself the gift of release and go on to your next journey knowing that you are love, you are loved, and you will always be loved.
Courage Until the End
It amazed me that Christine was brave enough to use the law. It’s one thing to say you’re going to take the medication; it’s another to actually follow through. Additionally, I admired her courage in sharing her story publicly with such candor and with an eye toward ensuring terminally ill patients like her would understand how to access the law.
On August 25, 2018, Christine died peacefully at home, finally free of the pain and suffering she had endured for nearly six years. As I reflected on her life and her final crusade to access and advocate for death with dignity, I realized I felt very strongly that everybody should have this end-of-life option should they find themselves facing a terminal illness like Christine.
Advocating For Dignity
I decided that I would become a champion of death with dignity and a supporter of Death with Dignity National Center now and into the future.
Someday I or somebody I know or care about might need death with dignity. It would be a gift and a relief for people who do not want to die, but who are dying. They, and all of us, deserve dignity at the end.