Cusp

How it feels to be on the brink of a life passage, from youth to middle age to death.

Imagining the Best Way to Die

Ask loved ones to describe their own "good deaths" and you might be surprised.

The evening after attending a panel discussion on "Confronting Mortality" at the New York Academy of Sciences, I took a tip from one of the speakers, Lani Leary, author of No One Has to Die Alone. Leary had urged us to talk to our families about what they would want at the end of life -- nothing new in that recommendation, really, since people have been saying for years that everyone needs to have "The Conversation" about death, even the young and healthy. What was new about Leary's advice was how she suggested phrasing the question: "What would be the ideal death FOR YOU?"

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"I have a daughter who works on the ocean, and recreates on the ocean," said Leary. "When I asked her 'What would be the ideal death for you?' she said 'I would like it to be by drowning.'" Since her daughter spends about 80 percent of her time on water, Leary calculates that it's reasonably likely that the way she dies COULD be from drowning. "Can you imagine how different my grief would be, knowing that it was something she said she would have wanted?" 

So the following evening, when I found myself at dinner with my mother, my brother, and my husband, I decided to ask the same question Leary had asked her daughter. My brother wants to die fast and clean, he said, like our father did, without even knowing it was coming. My mother doesn't want to die at all; she's so terrified of death that she couldn't really even entertain the question. My husband was the clearest in his response: "I want it to be at a moment I've chosen, the way I've chosen. I want to have some pills, call the people I care about to come sit with me, take the pills, and die."

The insistence on control over his final moments is consistent with my husband's core philosophy. But I could see his answer surprised my mother. To her, and to much of the outside world, he is a mild, modest man who usually goes along with what other people want. Yet what's crucial to him, as this answer about his "good death" makes clear, is being master of his own fate.

Who knows how the final months will ultimately shape up for us, or when. But it's helpful to know how important it is to my husband that he be the one in charge of the timing and the manner of his own death.

In that way, he's like the man profiled in today's front-page article in The New York Times, "Aid in Dying Movement Takes Hold in Some States." Reporter Erik Ekholm tells us about Robert Mitton, 58 and dying of heart disease, who says he wishes he lived in one of the states that allows assisted dying, rather than in Colorado.

"Helping the terminally ill end their lives, condemned for decades as immoral, is gaining traction," writes Ekhholm. He writes that "death with dignity" advocates believe that "as baby boomers watch frail parents suffer, support for what they call the 'aid in dying' movement will grow further." With any luck, this article will be prompting conversations about "the ideal death FOR YOU" around kitchen tables across the country. I'd say it's just in time.

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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