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Why Brittany Maynard?

I read the news on Sunday night: Brittany Maynard had taken her life as she said she was going to do on November 1st.  I felt sad in the sense that this person was no longer alive, no longer in this world, so to speak.  It was a horrible situation, and I had followed her story mostly through BlogHer and a People magazine article.

I went upstairs and Josh asked if I had heard yet that Brittany Maynard had died.  I admitted that I was sad, but I added that I didn’t really know why.  At least, I couldn’t put it into words.  I didn’t know her; I don’t think I could name 10 facts about her.  And certainly, she wasn’t the only person who died this weekend.  Many more people died this weekend much closer to home.  There were women who died here in Washington, D.C. and I didn’t feel sad, per se, about their death.  I mean, yes, I felt sad in the sense that if I read about them, I would feel sad that someone’s life had ended.  So why was Maynard’s death weighing heavier than all of those deaths?  Why was her’s comment-worthy whereas the women who died in D.C. this weekend left the world without my knowledge?

Brittany Maynard isn’t the first person who utilized the Death with Dignity law.  Since late 1997, over 700 people have used it.  So it’s not a weekly occurrence, but close to it.  About 41 per year.  6 of those people have been under 35.  (The vast majority of the people using the law are much much older.)  Why didn’t we hear about those 6?  Was it because she was gorgeous?  Because she was so young?  Well-spoken?  Willing to put her story out there?  Were we just willing to listen because a young woman discussing the need for this law draws our attention more than a 70-year-old man?  What does that say about us?

I am sad that Brittany Maynard is no longer in this world, even though I didn’t know her.  I’m also sad that I don’t know the people who died in Washington, D.C. this weekend.  That their deaths went unnoted in the newspaper unless their family placed an obit or their death was violent enough to make the crime section.  I guess I am just sad, all-around.

Sad that life contains this: an ending.

10 comments

1 Sharon { 11.04.14 at 11:33 am }

I was sad about Brittany’s story, too. I think for me it was because her diagnosis came at a time when it seemed that the life she wanted for herself was just beginning: she was newly married, and she and her husband had planned to start a family at the time when her brain tumor was diagnosed. Instead of enjoying those early days of marriage and building the family they had planned, she found herself dealing with a fatal diagnosis and declining health, and that lead her to make the choice she made.

The narrative of being a “fighter” and a “survivor” in the face of cancer, especially for young people, is popular in our culture. A story like Brittany’s, where an individual makes (what I believe is) an equally valid and courageous choice to leave this life on her own terms, while her quality of life is still (mostly) intact, generally gets less attention and is less celebrated.

2 It Is What It Is { 11.04.14 at 12:24 pm }

I followed her story with much interest. I put myself in her shoes, is that the choice I would make for myself and, if I did, what would my last days on this earth be like if I knew I were counting them down.

I found her to be poised, eloquent, brave in the face of celebrity that came by the way of a terminal diagnoses that she might not have wanted but so poignantly drew attention to how we handle terminal illness and the right to die with dignity in this country. My uncle died the same week, ravaged by a recurrence of prostate cancer. My aunt had to FIGHT to bring him home where he could pass in the comforts of his own home, with those he loved most around him, his son reading passages from his favorite books to him, in privacy. But, it was not the same choice for him to make as hers was and for that I am sorry for him.

I do not like the characterization that ‘she took her own life’ as that is reserved, in my mind, for suicide which is not what she did. Terminal brain cancer took her life, she merely chose the manner and place in which she left this world. Some may think it semantics, but those who do diminish both suicide and the right to die with dignity.

Could I have made the same decision at her age? Would I have? Those are questions that I cannot answer. What I do know, is that I would have deserved and desired to have the choice.

It is odd, I agree, to mourn someone I didn’t know, but her death has stayed with me, perhaps because of my awareness that I know I have lived more than half my life and I am SO grateful for each and every day I am productive on this earth, with the acute awareness of who I love, who loves me, and how important that is. I simply cannot imagine what it must have been like for her, in the hours/minutes/moments leading up to her death, but I respect so deeply her choice.

3 a { 11.04.14 at 12:28 pm }

I don’t know how well it speaks of me, but I am no more sad about her death than I am about the death of any other random person. She’s on par with the friend of an acquaintance from grade school who died from cancer this weekend. I guess I’m just not that empathetic. Sure, it’s unfortunate, but I don’t internalize their trials.

I do admire Brittany for deciding to live (and end) her life her way, as I admire people who fight cancer to the bitter end. There’s a little extra boost to Brittany, because she let the world in to try and explain her decision, in order to maybe make that choice a viable option for future sufferers. I think we all know very well that letting the world in has huge risks along with whatever perceived benefit that motivates us to do it.

4 Davidah { 11.04.14 at 2:13 pm }

I haven’t watched Brittany’s videos or read much about her, so this isn’t a comment about hear. I will admit to being somewhat uncomfortable with the right-to-die movement in general. I wonder if it contributes to a mind-set in society that only a certain type of life is worthy of respect. I’m much more comfortable with hospice — giving individuals and families the physical and emotional support they need to live out the end of life in a non-medical setting (if that’s desired); providing pain relief; supporting an individual’s right to stop or limit eating when they no longer want nutrition. The last days of life are often painful, messy, and difficult, but they can also be beautiful and healing when approached with acceptance and without fear. I think it’s okay for people to be dependent on others and for families and society to care for the most vulnerable, including the disabled and dying. I find the expansion of euthanasia in the Netherlands to be troubling, especially the increasing number of people with dementia who die with euthanasia. (We have a friend with dementia who is very impaired but still experiences much connection and joy in her life).

Davidah

5 amelie { 11.04.14 at 6:39 pm }

I understand your sadness because I feel it too, I think because we all want the narrative of a miracle, a last minute reprieve, a retreat of the tumors. As a “miracle” cancer survivor I always that that hope for every one else even as I fear of others dying every day. My biggest fear is to die very differently than I have live (as Brittany lived) – without joy, with enormous ending pain – cancer patients in hospice so drugged that they are unconscious moan and cry in their sleep – I have sat at their bedsides and witnessed it – saying things and acting in a way that I would never have behaved when well. I have seen families traumatized with their family members “peaceful” death falling into deep depression due to their inability to alleviate the suffering or because of horrible things said or done by the patient. Even when you know it is the tumor talking it is hard to get over those times. I know that I want to die as close to being me as possible even if I have to move to Oregon.

6 Queenie { 11.04.14 at 7:20 pm }

Me, too. I think it’s because she was so young. I think it makes us feel vulnerable, to see someone so young and beautiful in such a hopeless, terrible situation. And it’s just tragic, in and of itself.

7 Lori Lavender Luz { 11.04.14 at 9:48 pm }

I, too, was sad and pensive about the news of her self-determined death. I think she was incredibly brave. Would I be, too? I wonder if I would be so graceful.

8 Pamela { 11.04.14 at 11:00 pm }

I, too, felt a loss. Brittany put herself out there and, in doing so, challenged us to make a difference in the way we lived our lives — and to contemplate not just the simple but the complex…and for that I am grateful to her.

9 JustHeather { 11.05.14 at 4:27 am }

Monday was the first I had heard of Brittany, and her death. I too was filled with sadness as her passing, especially because she was so young and it sounded as if she was just really starting her life (at least that a new phase of it). I am, however, proud to be from Oregon where people can choose how they want to go if it is needed.

10 Kathy { 11.05.14 at 3:49 pm }

I followed Brittany’s story loosely and also felt sadness when I heard that she went through with it. I don’t feel sad because she did it, surprisingly I get that, though I don’t know that I would be able to do it, given a similar situation (but I really don’t know, because I am not in those shoes). I feel sad because she was so sick and didn’t get to live the life she dreamed of and hoped for with her husband and family. My therapist talks about “missed potential” and whether someone dies by suicide (which I do not consider this to be), illness, accident, or other reasons, anyone who leaves this world “too soon,” can be hard to come to terms with. Endings are hard. That said, I don’t believe that our lives (or at least our souls) end on this earth completely. Of course I can’t and won’t know for sure until I die, but I find comfort in believe there is an afterlife and we will be reunited with our loved ones again. Thank you for writing this. I haven’t been doing much blog reading or commenting lately, but this came up in my Facebook feed and I am glad I clicked over. I think I have told you this before, but when someone dies who was in the public eye and I want to read commentary about it, I often think of you and come here. I recall that was among my first thoughts when I heard that Steve Jobs died. Anyway, thank you for continuing to write and to share. You have such a gift to capture what so many of us are also thinking about and grappling with. Sending you love, peace, and comfort wherever this finds you when you read it. xoxo

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