Honoring our wives’ lives and deaths (COMMENTARY)

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We are two ordinary men who married extraordinary women who died too young from cancer.

Both our wives were brilliant, beautiful Californians who made deeply personal videos viewed by millions of Americans. And each of them made requests of their ordinary husbands that we have been proud to fulfill: to hold them as they died and to take up their selfless battles to spare other Americans similar suffering.

In August of 2012, Harlan married Jennifer Glass. Just before the New Year, he noticed the small lump on Jennifer’s neck, which revealed the lung cancer that took her in less than three years. Jennifer, a PR pro who believed in the power of stories, chose to share her life with cancer — her treatments, her moments of gratitude and grief — in a very public way, in order to live purposefully and give strength to others facing a similar diagnosis.

Dan married Brittany Maynard in September of 2012. Just over a year later, they learned the headaches she’d been suffering were caused by a brain tumor. After an eight-hour brain surgery and the tumor’s return, Brittany came to a heartbreaking realization: no treatment could save her life, and the side effects of potentially life-prolonging treatments would rob her of any quality of life. Brittany researched her options and asked her family to move with her to Oregon so she could access aid in dying, which is authorized by the state’s Death with Dignity Act.

Video courtesy of CompassionChoices via Youtube

The next few months were busy for both our wives. As husbands and partners, we tried to balance the impulse to protect them with the promise to support their altruistic missions, even as we sometimes selfishly wished to keep them all to ourselves. When your new bride is living with terminal cancer, time with her is always precious.

As similar as our two stories are, our wives had very different deaths. Brittany died peacefully, in Dan’s embrace, in their house in the Oregon woods. The aid-in-dying prescription from her doctor allowed Brittany to fall asleep and pass away gently. But Jennifer did not have a peaceful death, and it is a story she would want to be told.

When Jennifer’s cancer suddenly spread in June of this year, she did not have the time or the energy to relocate to a new state. As her pain became unbearable, she opted for terminal sedation, which some say is a good alternative to aid in dying. But for Jennifer, it was not, and she died over five torturous days. She groaned and grimaced whenever she was turned to prevent bedsores. In the middle of the third night, she woke from her medically induced coma terrified, agitated and gasping for air.

Death-with-dignity laws allow mentally competent adults facing an imminent death to have some control over how and when they die. Jennifer always said having that option might not make her fearless, but it would help her to fear less. Brittany said having it gave her a sense of peace in the face of fear and uncertainty.

It was nearly a year ago that Brittany’s death made headlines, and a month ago that Jennifer struggled to die. Today, we two widowers are proud to bear the rather extraordinary burden of continuing our wives’ work. We feel extremely gratified that the California Legislature passed, and Governor Brown has now signed, the End of Life Option Act into law here. We are also encouraged knowing half the states have now taken up similar death-with-dignity bills.

The overwhelming majority of Americans believe we all deserve to make our own decisions, based on our personal values, about how we live and how we die. The two of us will continue our work — our wives’ work — to pass laws that leave end-of-life decisions where they belong, between people and their doctors.

(Dan Diaz and Harlan Seymour live in California. More information about their campaign is at www.TheBrittanyFund.org. This column first appeared in USA Today.)