In late January of 2011, my mother asked her internist if it would be OK for her to stop eating. The doctor said yes, whereupon she stopped eating and, for the most part, drinking. After two weeks, she died. With her doctor’s permission, she starved herself to death. Why?
My mother was not someone who gave up easily. She had chronic leukemia. She had a pacemaker. She had one kidney. At the age of 79 she had major abdominal surgery for peritoneal cancer, then underwent a second surgery to remove the adhesions that had formed. Radiation and chemotherapy followed. Her cancer went into remission.
A brilliant pianist, she set her mind on celebrating her 80th birthday by giving a duo recital with her friend, the renowned cellist Charles Curtis. She did. The following year, she gave a remarkable performance of Beethoven’s Archduke Trio.
Now she was 83 years old. Her peritoneal cancer had returned. An infection put her in the hospital for a week, leaving her seriously weakened. In rehabilitation, she had a mild stroke, which didn’t affect her mind or her speech but left her unable to read.
She returned to her apartment, spoke with the doctor, and got into bed. We called in hospice care.
In her last days, my mother had her sons, her daughters-in-law, and her grandchildren around her. Friends and other relatives came to visit. She talked with them all, told them what she thought they needed to hear, said goodbye. She planned her funeral, picking those she wanted to officiate and giving instructions for her recording of the second movement of Schubert’s A Major piano sonata to be played. She made sure we knew where the coffee urn was for the shiva. There were stories, reminiscences, laughter.
She slipped into a coma on a Friday, we welcomed in the Sabbath at her bedside, and early the next morning she was at rest.
Hers was suicide by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking, or VSED — a way of death that is becoming increasingly common. It’s legal but for some it’s morally problematic. We learned that the staff of our Catholic hospice agency was going to meet to discuss what their policy should be.
Certainly there’s a difference between VSED and taking a lethal dose of a drug, as 29-year-old brain cancer sufferer Brittany Maynard
proposes to do has now done. But I judge it to be a difference in degree, not in kind.
So far as I’m concerned, if there was ever a good death, my mother had it. You’re free to judge otherwise.