I just watched a stunning documentary on HBO called “How to Die in Oregon.” The film made a powerful argument for “Death with Dignity” laws, by showing intimate portraits of people who were terminally ill and had chosen to die on their own terms. As one volunteer put it, our culture has this mistaken belief that courage means suffering; that to cherish life means a person has to endure excruciating agony and intrusive medical procedures to forestall death at any cost. The people in this film show that courage also means choosing to say “no, I’ve had enough. I cherish life too much to spend my last weeks in the hospital hooked up to machines or throwing up from chemotherapy. I want to die with dignity.” What becomes clear is the ability to choose their death is their final gift to their families.
Two people even shared their deaths with the filmmaker, and with us, and both deaths were incredibly graceful and moving. The second half of the film mostly tracks the last year of a remarkable woman named Cody. She was a 54-year-old mother of two, married 36 years, and she had aggressive liver cancer. Cody, in particular, through her eloquence and honesty, was persuasive that the right to choose one’s own death is a necessary component of a compassionate society.
Another powerful story was that of a woman in Washington state whose husband had died a horrible death from brain cancer. Before he died he asked his wife to promise to change the law so no one else would have to suffer as he did. The film shows her activism after his death, leading to Washington State passing a death with dignity law in November 2008.
I honor the individuals and the families who were willing to share such a difficult and intimate part of their lives, because they have given an enormous gift to all of us.
I highly recommend this film. It will make you cry, it will move you, and it will probably make you a believer in death with dignity laws.