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Kittredge: Noble Endings

I’ve had several recent encounters with an issue that affects a demographic not generally considered pop culture trend setters: the elderly.

What I’ve seen is an increasing number of people who, when faced with a terminal illness, have decided to end their own lives by no longer eating or drinking. It’s not been a quick decision for them; and it’s required much thought, consideration, prayer and contemplation. Nor is it an easy thing to do; it can be painful and difficult. But in the situations I’ve witnessed, the individuals have been lovingly cared for by hospice workers, staff and family and their deaths, in the end, have been peaceful.

Act 39, “An act relating to patient choice and control at end of life” was passed by the Vermont Legislature in 2013. It outlines in twelve pages the steps that both patients and doctors must meet before being prescribed medication to end the patient’s life. The process can seem cumbersome, but it ensures that this grave decision is not entered into lightly.

Still, meeting the requirements and adhering to the letter of the law can make this intimate and heartfelt decision seem legalistic. So it’s not surprising that a rising number of people are choosing instead simply to stop taking nourishment.

There's irony in rising above that which is dragging us down, and when all seems lost, exerting our autonomy and independence in the face of increasing dependence and discomfort. Most people making this choice say that they don’t want to suffer or be a burden anymore – and they’re admired for their decision – and appropriately so, since no one should be sentenced to a life of constant pain.

But lately I’ve realized this could inadvertently put pressure on those who don’t take this path, even in the face of diminishment and illness. And I worry they might feel that the noble thing to do would be to bow out, as others have done – thus adding guilt to the already difficult burden of frailty they bear.

The question is how to view our lives when we’re dependent and compromised perhaps both mentally and physically. Every person’s situation is different, and all that might remain is one's ability to love and be loved.

The challenge is for each of us to discern, with the support of family, friends and a caring community, how best to express that love.

Susan Cooke Kittredge is Associate Pastor of the Charlotte Congregational Church.
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