In the 17 years that we’ve operated Urn Garden, we’ve heard lots of stories about pet parents making the difficult decision to put a beloved animal to sleep. Today, was a turning point in our history, as we had the human version to that story.
This particular customer had ordered a custom bronze shell urn, and since these beautiful vessels are poured to order, they can take several weeks to produce.
While following up with this client regarding the status of her order, she mentioned that she needed it by a certain date, as she was being “put to sleep”. “Oh, you’re having surgery?” I asked. “No” she said. “I’m going to sleep forever. I’m terminal”
This took me a little aback, as I’ve never had a conversation like this. I mean, what do you say to that? “Are you serious?” I asked. Maybe not the most appropriate response, but she was so calm and cheerful that I really wasn’t sure if she was being real.
Turns out, she was a former teacher and she was willing to educate me. My first thought was that she was in Oregon, but after a quick glance at her order, I said “Oh, you are in Colorado! I didn’t know that they had assisted suicide.”
“Well, we don’t call it that”, she said. “Colorado just passed Death with Dignity about three years ago.” She went on to say that she’d had a full life as a math and science teacher, had touched many lives, but in recent years, her quality of life had radically changed. Prior to her illness, she and her husband were active hikers and outdoorsy people. Now? She can’t move, hasn’t driven in years, can’t wear clothes, and is completely dependent on others for every need. “My quality of life, sucks,” she said.
She’d seen over 70 specialists at 13 different hospital clinics and she was done with all that.
Of course, I had some questions.
Do you have to go the hospital or can you die at home?
No, she said, she chose to die at home. The doctor will write her a prescription that she can get at the pharmacy and mix with 6 oz. of liquid that she’ll drink and then go to sleep. Forever.
How did she pick that date?
It just happened to be the date that the physician was available.
In her state, to participate in this program, you have to have two physicians agree on a terminal prognosis, two physicians that can determine that you are of sound mind, and a mountain of paperwork.
That pile of paperwork was also a deciding factor in the cause of death on the death certificate. The coroner wanted to list her passing as suicide, but the physician advocated for her and was able to persuade the corner to list the official diagnosis.
As we were talking, I looked at the calendar and that date loomed about four weeks out. “I’m not scared.” she said. And it sounded like she meant it.
Since then, we’ve had another conversation and she sounded bright. She mentioned that she’d been in a lot of pain the night before and was looking forward to THE DATE. She plans to look out her office windows at the mountains and watch the hummingbirds who are super active right now, have a little nibble of her favorite chocolate with Mozart playing in the background.
I can’t imagine what it must be like for her family, her husband, who is at home by her side. Maybe it’s like any other family situation when you are caring for a loved one, only instead of day to day, which she is, you can see the end.
Her friends and family all know she’s ill, but she’s decided not to share the fact that she has a scheduled appointment with death.
“Everybody is busy, and the kids couldn’t handle it, it’s too heavy.”
When the day comes, her husband will call and let everyone know that she died in her sleep.
Frequently Asked Questions about Death with Dignity
What is Death with Dignity?
Death with dignity usually refers to an end-of-life option where individuals legally obtain medications from their physician to end their life on their own terms in a dignified and humane manner. Also known as “physician-assisted death” or “physician-assisted dying”, the term death with dignity can also refer to specific state legislation that allows this end-of-life option, or to the group of organizations promoting the movement in the U.S.
How many states currently have death with dignity statutes?
As of August 2019 the following states have physician-assisted dying statutes:
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
Physician-assisted dying is also legal in Montana by way of a 2009 State Supreme Court Ruling
How can I find a physician to prescribe death with dignity medications?
You will need to ask a doctor in California, Colorado, District Of Columbia, Hawaii, Montana, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, Or Washington if they are willing to prescribe your life-ending medications. Doctor participation in death with dignity is strictly voluntary.
Who is eligible to participate in death with dignity?
In order to qualify for a prescription of life-ending medication under a physician-assisted dying statute, you must be:
- an adult resident of California, Colorado, District Of Columbia, Hawaii, Montana, Maine, New Jersey, Oregon, Vermont, or Washington – there is no length-of-residency requirement but you must be able to establish that you are a legal resident of that particular state
- capable of communicating your healthcare decisions in a mentally competent manner
- diagnosed with a terminal condition that will lead to death within six months
- able to administer and ingest the prescribed medication on your own without assistance
Should I tell my family?
While everyone’s family situation is unique, talking to your family members about your intention to participate in death with dignity can help them come to terms with your decision. An open dialogue about the process can provide an understanding of your end-of-life options and why you are choosing physician-assisted death.
Find out more about death with dignity from the Death with Dignity National Center website.
The website Compassion and Choices recently published a story written by our client’s husband with details her health struggles and difficult choices.