I keep seeing people discussing the New York Times piece on Sandra Bem’s suicide after she decided her Alzheimer’s disease had gone too far. It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking piece, and I have great respect for the thoughtful and loving way Bem and her family went through a very painful process.
But do you ever notice these are the only pieces you see about death? Before the piece on Bem, it was “Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer” and before that it was “How Doctors Die” that were going around my newsfeed. About coming to terms with one’s own mortality, refusing end-of-life treatment, perhaps stockpiling narcotics just to be sure. About people who can think through their own end rationally, weigh the pros and cons.
After reading a lot of these articles, I had the idea that this was the way to do it. The correct way to die was with acceptance, with grace, with foresight, with planning, with documentation.
And then I spent two years living with a person who was dying. My mother-in-law Did Not Want to Talk About being sick. She did not want to plan for the future. She did not want to discuss hospice. She did not write letters to her grandchildren, or give us last messages, or any of the things I expected.
It took me a while to realize that was okay. She loved being alive, and she hated to think of stopping even when her quality of life was bad. She was not ready to go. She was never going to be ready.
It was easier for her that she went a little before any of us expected, that she said goodnight and went upstairs to bed for the last time without any tearful goodbyes. Her last message to us was how to clean the fish tank. There will never be a New York Times piece about that.
There is not only one correct way to die.