Over the years, death has been very much a part of my life.
Growing up in Southern New Jersey, my family (very wisely) made sure we were not protected from the reality of death - both young and old. Even when my fifteen year old cousin Bobby lingered for two weeks after a car accident we were not shielded. When he died there was the classic open casket funeral and unbearable grief in the room.
When my grandparents passed away when I was just in double digits age wise, we were made a part of the process of grief and the ritual of burial. The kids were expected to be there and process the death of loved ones.
As a junior in high school my Aunt Millie was stabbed 21 times and killed in a rural robbery attempt. I unfortunately found her and witnessed the brutality of a violent death. That might be the only time my mother attempted to protect me from the horror and wouldn't allow me to go to the funeral. The killing was sensationalized in the small rural community and she didn't want me to be asked a lot of questions about it.
My best friend Russell Garrison was sent to Vietnam and died at just 18 years of age. Even though it was a 'hero's death' I didn't find the grief or funeral any different from the rest. Russell was dead not some abstract hero.
My young cousin Eddie killed himself at about the same age. As only young death can do, it devastated the family. That is when my Uncle Bob turned to me at age 21 and said "Come on you might as well learn to do this" and took me to pick out the casket and make the funeral arrangements. God, I felt I was too young to learn all about that so soon. Evidently I wasn't in my family's mind.
In later years, I thank God that my family made sure I knew about death. For fifteen years, almost my entire middle age, my life was surrounded by death. Over 300 of my friends and acquaintances died from HIV/AIDS. Over those years, I spoke at over 90 funerals. Week in and week out we would be by the bedside of our peers as they died a slow painful and awful death at such a young age.
In those years, I became a huge supporter of euthanasia. In many cases, the knowledge was that certain death was just around the corner. There were cases where I participated in helping to fulfill the wishes of those who were ready to go. Doctors would leave us bags of morphine or other drugs and disappear. We would hook up the IV's and be by their side as they made the transition. The doctors would return sign the death certificate and we would move on knowing we have given our friend dignity and relief from pain by our actions.
My father is currently 94 and has lost all mental facilities. He is raging in a nursing home and his mind must be filled with horrors. In some ways, he lost the zest for life when my mother died in 1986 and never regained it. The last years I am convinced he just wants to go 'home' and join my mother. Never has he created a living will nor do I think he would believe in it. So instead of relief and peace, we can't end his horrible long transition into another place.
The most important lesson learned by this overwhelming experience with death is not the fear of it but the fear of suffering. It is hard to watch how such suffering has impacted their family and friends. The long drawn out process of witnessing a love one helplessly suffer and the toll physically, emotionally and financially that it takes on them is very hard.
People should have the right if they have the capacity to make an informed decision to chose euthanasia. They should have the right to spare their friends and families. They should have the right to a death with dignity and even planned rituals around it. Those who because of religious or personal beliefs should follow their own path of spirituality but not imposed on their beliefs me or others.
Euthanasia is not a fringe issue. It is about one of the most important times in our lives. Freedom of choice in death is essential for every human being.