A last goodbye
by Rob Tiller
Spring arrived in Raleigh this week, with lots of blooming. There were flowers everywhere, including daffodils, magnolias, cherry blossoms, pear blossoms, and red buds. Sally’s orchids also held forth, and did some modeling for me, as shown in these images.
This week Sally’s mom died. Diane G. Berkeley was my friend as well as my mother-in-law. We shared a love of music, art, and politics, and, of course, Sally. Over the course of almost four decades, we had many good talks. On occasion, there were disagreements, but not many.
Diane recently turned 90. She’d been in physical decline for the last couple of years — increasingly frail, weak, and dizzy. She couldn’t take care of her two beloved greyhounds anymore, and had to give them away. She’d lost a lot of her hearing, sight, and taste, and her short term memory was unreliable. Things she’d always enjoyed, like books, music, and movies, were no longer enjoyable. After long thought, she decided she’d had enough, and wanted to go.
Under the law of North Carolina, Diane couldn’t get help in dying from a physician or anyone else. Her solution was to quit eating and drinking. As I learned around this time, this is common enough to have a name: VSED. She was uncomfortable for a while, particularly with thirst, but ultimately it worked. She seemed to be resting peacefully at the end.
Of course I’m sad to lose my old friend. At the same time, I’m glad that she managed to do as she wanted and end her misery. But I’m also angry that our system prevented support that would have made her last weeks easier and happier. It didn’t have to be so hard for her, or for her family.
As we remember her, maybe we can also reconsider how we think about death, including our typical default position of denying that it exists. It will eventually come for us all. As we learn to accept death as it is, we may find more compassion for each other, and work out better ways to help loved ones near the end. For those interested in learning more about this problem and possibly helping to address it, I’ll recommend the web site of one of my favorite charities, Compassion and Choices.