At Crones Counsel 26 in Bellingham Washington, I attended a presentation by Phyllis Shacter in which she detailed her journey with her husband up to and through his decision to let go of life via VSED: Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking. Her presentation of the psychological, spiritual and practical exigencies that they both faced during his drawn-out process left me riveted; at last a person who is speaking about this important idea, and not just speaking about it, but gifting us with her journey with her husband, as he faced degenerative Alzheimer’s disease and chose, while still capable of choosing, to die consciously, and in full awareness, via this legal method rather than endure possibly years and years of diminishing functionality and increasing burden on others. For her part in this initially agonizing, but increasingly determined and even calming choice, Phyllis decided to treat the entire process of her beloved husband’s dying as sacred ritual, constructing an altar with candles and mementos of his life to be present for the entire nine and one half days that it took for his body to let go.
All the while I was listening to Phyllis speak, I could not help but be reminded of a dear friend of mine who is currently undergoing the slow deterioration of what was diagnosed as Parkinson’s Disease in 2012, and has led to an increasing barrage of medications while reducing her tremulous body, to — what is it now, 93 pounds? (She’s my size, 5’4″.) Plus, though her mind still seems to work perfectly well, and her heart is more open than ever, her speech is increasingly slurred, so that at this point only about 10% of what she says makes the kind of sense that the rest of us rely on to communicate with others.
I have been visiting with her on a near weekly basis for at least two years now; except for relatives, I am the only person in her life who still keeps in regular touch. I think it’s just too hard for most people to witness her slow deterioration without fearing that the same might happen to them.
I’ve long felt that the shadow of our culture lies in its collective grief. Grief, first of all, for the genocide of Native Americans; and over the 243 years this country has been in existence, for the near continuous murderous wars we have inflicted upon the rest of the world.
For each individual who lives here, grief is also a personal shadow. Who among us is willing to undergo the unpredictable, sometimes frightening process of actually allowing while witnessing the deep emotionality of our own grief over the loss of a loved one? Deeper: who of us is willing to consciously die when our time comes? Who among us is willing to forego the “heroic” medical interventions that are inflicted upon “patients” when they near the end of life in order to keep them “alive” as long as possible?
Fear of death is the fear that underlies all others. And to keep it at bay, we project this rumbling underground fear upon others — and kill them! through wars, or through slow agonizing death via the medical system that, while it does include many caring individuals, also trains its practitioners to “save life” at all costs, rather than to compassionately allow, even assist, people to die on their own terms.
BTW: as Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) begin to enter the final stretch of their long lives, even those who have kept their bodies “in shape” will begin to recognize that they can actually make a personal decision as to how they want to die. And since the post-World War II Boomers are the largest demographic alive, as VSED becomes more of a recognized choice, so may our society, and we as individuals, begin to consciously address the largely hidden phenomena of both grief and fear of death; hopefully, we will thus begin the process of integrating this lurking shadow that has for so long wreaked continuous destruction upon the entire world.
Read Phyllis’s book: Choosing to Die: A Personal Story
Her website: www.phyllisshacter.com
Meanwhile, here is an excerpt from a TedX talk that she gave only seven months after her beloved husband left this plane on his own terms and with her full support.
And here’s a 2016 NYT article on the subject that ranges widely, including possible pitfalls, and societal strictures.