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Family needs to understand, accept decision to end life

Q: Last night, my mother and I had a disturbing heart-to-heart conversation. She believes that she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She does not know how rapidly it might overtake her and is uncertain how much it will ultimately affect her. But she is clear that if she is getting disabled quickly, she would like to talk to her physician about terminating her life. She does not want to risk living through dementia and would rather die. My mom has been the most consistent support system for all of my life. I cannot imagine life without her. Neither am I sure what I should be saying to her? The question that is haunting me is whether or not my mom or our family are ready. Do you have any thoughts that would help all of us?


A: I think that you need to have a better appreciation of what physician-assisted suicide is all about. This is not a question of living or dying. It is giving some people the option to die before they might otherwise do so. 


Whether your mother dies with the help of her family physician or whether your mother dies sometime later through more natural causes, the result is still the same for you. 


You will miss her terribly and you will likely have significant grief. 


If your family is going to consider physician-assisted suicide as an alternative for your mom, all of you will do better if you accept a number of responsibilities. 


The first is that all of you need to absorb as much medical information about your mother’s condition as you can by talking to her doctor. The more information you can find, the more likely you will agree on the pros and cons of physician-assisted suicide.


You and your family also need to talk to each other. Physician-assisted suicide is more than a choice that your mother might consider on her own. This is a family thing. 


Each of you will engage in your own piece of hell when you think about it and the more that you can share the despondency, the less likely it will be that your mother’s death will tear your family apart. You need each other.


And, finally, your mother needs to have the opportunity to prepare for death on her own terms. Wills, bank accounts, investments, and whatever properties she has need to be properly re-solved. It is a natural closure to her affairs. 


People are important too. How often is it that friends forget to say goodbye to the arches of support that have carried them through the good and bad times? 


Your mom needs to say goodbye to each of you while she is still capable of doing so. And you need to say goodbye to her. 


It might also be nice if she could have a few visits with those in and about your town, maybe through the church.


Saying goodbye is the equivalent of saying “I love you”. Expressing that makes the whole process of dying, either through physician-assisted suicide or natural means, easier for all.

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