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A Widower's Perspective on Assisted Death

Bill Nerin was a Catholic Priest for 24 years and a Family Therapist and is currently an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Oklahoma in the Human Relations Department. As a Washington resident, he volunteered to help put the state's Death with Dignity Act on the ballot which the voters approved in 2008.

In his book published last year, A Couple Faces Death: My Life After Anne, Bill shares how, together, they faced Anne's certain death due to melanoma, and his life since her death. Below, you'll find sections from the chapter "What To Do About Death."

Journal April 10, 2006—about six months after Anne's death.
We all thank God when a child is born, or when we recover from an illness based on the assumption that God has something to do with birth and recovery. But we don't seem to thank God for death even though it is assumed that God has something to do with that too.

Could death be the most splendid, glorious moment in that person's entire existence since birth? Then we shout for joy for Anne who has achieved that special oneness with the Good of All, the Beauty of All, the Music of All, the Love of All, the Peace and Joy of All—that some of us prefer to call God, Allah and other nouns trying to designate this reality.

My grandmother died after calling her husband and her six grown sons and daughters to come into her hospital room and surround her bed. She looked at each of them, closed her eyes, a tear came down from each eye, she smiled and died. She was a very spiritual and life-loving person with whom I had the goodness to live with for three years during the depression from 1936-39. Her death was her final gift to me too as my mother told me the account. It is the reason that I think that death just might be the most glorious moment of our life.

Journal April 24, 2007
I always admired my brother who said to me with his eyes (as his stroke robbed him of his voice) "I'm going to die" and from that moment on he did by refusing food and drink. Is that not a slow suicide? Instead of ingesting a pill you refuse to eat or drink—the result is an act of the will, a killing of oneself.

If there is a God, would not the God say, "don't depend on me, grow up if you can; don't live in fear of me, take charge of your own life and decisions, even your last decision: death"

Journal May 26, 2007—A month later after seeing the movie Away From Her
After reading the movie review, I immediately wanted to see it. The movie and its superb actors depicted the slow painful journey of the husband (Gordon Pinsent) losing his beloved wife (Julie Christie) to Alzheimer's.

I went to bed last night somewhat disappointed that I did not seem more powerfully moved emotionally by the movie. But I was wrong. When I woke this morning the following was clear to me.

I faced more clearly that I am slowly dying even though it is by inches now, but will increase by feet sometime down the line.

I must prepare better for my dying the worst possible death, which would be losing my mind. But to do that I must free myself from God as I understand that "God". I must grow up and take full responsibility for my life, which includes my death. Modern science, while benefiting us, has perhaps crippled us. It has allowed our mind to slip away while keeping the flesh alive. What good is that, to be returned to the animal state? When the mind goes, so should the body it seems to me. There should be a harmony there, integration. Anne worried that when her spirit wanted to die, the body wouldn't follow suit. She went to a healer to be integrated. I don't know if that helped or not. Anne believed it did and so I think it helped her.

Has God revealed something to us about this? If Jesus is supposed to be the revelation of God to us—what is there in the Jesus story that speaks to, validates my taking responsibility for my dying and ending my life?

The only thing I can think of is that Jesus clearly knew that his actions in the final days would bring about his death. His prayer in the Garden testifies to that. He was on a self-inflicted mission to be killed by the way he was living. Caiaphas had said "it would be better to their interest if one man died for the whole people", John 18:14.

Jesus knew it was better for him to die for the sake of humanity—to teach by dying that love is the greatest thing there is. Love is greater than life itself. Loving others is higher than living on and on and on. But what strikes me now is that Jesus was no dumbbell, he knew exactly what his actions would bring about—namely his death. He chose freely to end his life for the sake of others. Even theology puts the spin on this very cleverly—"He died for our sins"—as if putting it this way justifies his taking his own life, for surely he died knowing that his freely chosen actions would cause his death—like taking a pill does.

One of the arguments used against my thinking here is that we must not interfere with nature. Let nature take its course. Yet we interfere with nature repeatedly by the injection of medicines, chemicals. In my family culture there was a saying "pneumonia is the best friend of old people." Of course that piece of wisdom was bantered about in the 1930s when I was in grade school. I haven't heard it lately. Modern medicine is constantly interfering with the course of nature by developing more and more drugs and procedures to keep us alive.

This interruption of nature in some cases helps one to live more enjoyably and productively. This is considered good and moral. So it is moral to interfere in the course of nature. Why is it not moral to interfere to bring about death when one's life is no longer productive and enjoyable? Death is a part of nature.

At last we have come to the point that we can tell the medical system not to apply "life sustaining processes" when we are seriously injured or sick and dying. Now we are encouraged to fill out a statement setting forth the conditions upon which we want no life sustaining interventions.

Posted on November 8, 2011 in Personal Stories, Religion


  • Posted by sherri satterfield on Thursday, December 22 at 12:52 a.m.

    After watching my mother,terminal with multiple myaloma at the age of 59, I learned the desperation and pain she went through to live. From the first treatment it was nothing but misery. Her looks, that she prided herself on, were gone with the first treatment. From there it was downhill, chemo and radiation 30 days straight. From the country club to not wanting to see anyone. From someone that cleaned behind the fridge 3x a week, to me finding someone to clean the house. To giving her jewelry away to wearing depends. To bleeding from the mouth and hospice taking her away in an ambulance. THAT WAS NOT MY MOTHER! I asked her if she wanted to save her meds and I would have given them to her gladly to put the misery of my mother out! She was too scared something would happen or not happen. I have made up my mind that this will never happen to me! I will give it a shot with health care, but only once. My last days will be as I have lived till I can no longer do it. Then it will be MY TIME. No suffering,with love,I will leave with grace and dignaty. Please try to get Florida on this as we have more seniors than any other state and don't need spouses killing each other and themselfs to end what should be their right! Sorry for the spelling as I cried the whole way of this. By the way, what really changed my mind was the special about Oregon. I will never forget that for the rest of my life and it has changed my life as I'm sure it has done for many others. God Bless, PLEASE KEEP IT UP FOR ALL PEOPLE! THANK YOU THRU THE TEARS.

  • Posted by Melissa Barber on Saturday, December 31 at 09:27 a.m.

    Thank you so much, Sherri, for your support. After careful research and polling, we've found the next likely state to pass a Death with Dignity law will be in New England, and that’s where we’re currently focusing our attention. As we work to pass more and more Death with Dignity laws throughout the US, our hope is enough states will tip the scales and states which have been resistant in the past will finally listen to the will of the people.

    Melissa Barber
    Electronic Communications Specialist
    Death with Dignity National Center

  • Posted by Jan Leonard on Thursday, March 08 at 11:28 a.m.

    I've been a Michigan resident for close to 30 years and see no signs of any Death with Dignity initiatives. After losing my mother last December to pulmonary fibrosis and other ailments, I am convinced that if she could "push a button" to end her life, she would've done so six months before her death. I would be interested to know of any progress in this state. After the conviction and ultimate loss of Jack Kevorkian here, few mention the viability of dying with dignity!

  • Posted by Melissa Barber on Monday, March 12 at 02:21 p.m.

    Sorry for my delay in responding to your comment. I've sent an email to you as well. Thank you so much for your interest in our cause.

    After careful research and polling, we've found the next likely state to pass a Death with Dignity law will be in New England, and that’s where we’re currently focusing our attention. As we work to pass more and more Death with Dignity laws throughout the US, our hope is enough states will tip the scales and states which have been resistant in the past will finally listen to the will of the people.

    I don't know of any active organizations working on this cause in Michigan right now. To get the ball rolling and to raise awareness in in your state, I'd recommend contacting your lawmakers with personal letters and/or phone calls on why they need to address the need for expanded life options for the terminally ill like Death with Dignity.

    All my best,
    Melissa Barber
    Electronic Communications Specialist
    Death with Dignity National Center

  • Posted by Janet in Illinois on Monday, April 02 at 07:46 p.m.

    I also saw the special on TV about dying in Oregon and I could hardly stop crying, because the ending of this woman's life was so beautiful. She died happily because she chose not to die a long painful death. We have animals euthanized when they are in pain but not people? Something is not right about that - we should be able to die the way we wish, just as we live the way we wish. I have believed this for a long time, ever since I read a book about a woman who helped her sister who was terminally ill and in terrible pain. This woman went to Mexico to get the pills, gave them to her sister, and waited in the other room until she didn't hear her sister breathing any more. It was so profound to me that I was convinced this was the most kind and beautiful gift she could have given her sister.

Defend dignity. Take action.

You are the key to ensuring well-crafted Death with Dignity laws for all Americans. With your financial and volunteer help, the Death with Dignity National Center, a 501(c)(3), non-partisan, nonprofit organization, has been the leading advocate in the Death with Dignity movement. Individual contributions helped us pass new Death with Dignity laws in Washington and Vermont, defend the Oregon law, and provide education and outreach programs for the vitality of the Death with Dignity movement.

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