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Talking About Death and Dying

Katie CouricOne of the biggest challenges we face in advocating for an end-of-life option like Death with Dignity is people just don't like to talk about the end of their lives. Last month, however, a dramatic shift in awareness and discussion about Death with Dignity laws began. Since the May 26th premier of How to Die in Oregon on HBO, I've been amazed with how many different people are talking about death and dying in the media, on blogs, and every facet of social media, including Facebook and Twitter.

Without looking at HBO's schedule, I could tell every time the film aired on the channel by the sheer number of tweets about the film and the Oregon and Washington laws. The conversations spanned from long-time advocates of the cause to people learning about the laws for the first time.

Joining the buzz around the film, Katie Couric opened up a conversation about the film on her Facebook page and even mentioned the need to have open discussions about death and dying when interviewed about her upcoming talk show launch:

I watched a documentary the other night on HBO, which was so incredibly powerful. It was called How to Die in Oregon, about their death-with-dignity law and it profiled this amazingly brave woman. She was 54, so it reminded me a lot of my sister – that was how old she was when she died. It was all about this woman and her family was so amazing. I thought, ‘Gee, if I had a show, I would invite her husband and children, the documentarian and then someone who felt uncomfortable with the Oregon law, and have an intelligent conversation about something that people probably find difficult to talk about but probably need to talk about.'

While the initial emotional reactions to the film often used the words depressing, sad, and devastating, the overall conclusions were "life-affirming", "powerful", and — perhaps most encouraging — people who were uncertain about Death with Dignity laws when they started watching came away from the film unequivocally in support of the issue. Regardless of how people felt about wanting the possibility of hastened death for themselves, many simply couldn't watch Cody Curtis' journey in deciding whether or when to take the life-ending medication and still deny others the option to avoid unnecessary suffering when facing an inevitable and imminent death.

Shortly after the personal stories in How to Die in Oregon opened the door for people to discuss types of end-of-life options, one of the most controversial and visible figures in the right-to-die movement died. Jack Kevorkian was a very polarizing figure, and his death brought about many different reactions to his work. Reading through hundreds of opinion pieces I've learned one thing for sure: no one has a neutral point of view about him.

But how people felt about his actions has been overshadowed by the fact his death reignited the media's — and thereby the public's — interest in talking about death and when or if it's appropriate to shorten the dying process. This lively, public debate about dying created a way for a larger population beyond those currently dying to learn more about what options are available and how we can work to make sure all the options we want will be available to us when we're facing these difficult decisions.

Please help us keep these conversations going to ensure everyone has access to expanded end-of-life options like Death with Dignity. Join us on Facebook, Twitter, and we always welcome everyone to comment on our blog. Every time you add your voice to the discussion, you're helping your friends and family know it's time to talk about all of life's phases, including death.

Posted on June 21, 2011

Comments

  • Posted by Debbie Sheets on Thursday, July 07 at 07:50 a.m.

    I care alot about this issue, as a bedside nurse in a hospital where the average patient age is 85 and many of the patient's have been admitted 4 and 5 times since a year ago and clearly are declining but it seems that no one is talking to them or their families about stopping aggressive cure directed care that isn't going anyway for them, talking about the inevitable dying and what their last months COULD be like. My family also dealt with our father;s death from pancreatic cancer a year ago and I myself am 55 with a 68 year old partner so I think of these issues alot. One of the things that is so amazing to me is the perfect acceptance our society has to assisting the birthing process but refusing to assist the dying process (except in OR, WA and Montana. Women/couples can decide when they want their babies to be born, a whole cadre of people gather to assist and they use all sorts of drugs to aid in that when necessary. Why can't the labor into death be as compassionately and wholeheartedly supported(cetainly it's a sadder occasion but a sadness no one left behind will be escaping anyway when their loved one has a life ending illness)? I think the denial about death, and the subsequent avoidance and/or irrationality, creates a barbaric experience for dying people and their loved ones, and makes me mad as hell about that.

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