from our blog:

living with dying

read more from our blog

Nancy Niedzielski from "How to Die in Oregon"

Nancy Niedzielski
Nancy Niedzielski

Nancy Niedzielski worked tirelessly in Washington to advocate for the state's Death with Dignity Act which voters approved in 2008. Her efforts were documented in the groundbreaking documentary How to Die in Oregon which was honored at film festivals all over the world and nominated for an Emmy Award.

When it was announced the documentary How To Die In Oregon was nominated for an Emmy, memories of the Washington campaign to pass the second Death with Dignity law, flooded my mind. The documentary placed a bookmark at a historical event for people around the world to see. And see it they did with an outpouring of love and support for those who dedicate time and money to ensure terminally-ill patients have a choice in their dying pain. Film Festivals around the world honored the documentary with awards, which for my way of thinking, honors the patients. My husband suffered in his dying, and the Oregon Death With Dignity Act couldn't help him.

I first met filmmaker Peter Richardson during our Washington state campaign. He heard about my husband who had the opposite experience of others featured in his documentary. At 55, Randy was diagnosed with brain cancer that metastasized to his spinal cord and nervous system. Randy had some decent years but his death was long, ugly, and painful. When Randy entered hospice, only Oregon had a Death with Dignity Law. He was desperately envious of Oregon's law. Being a member of a Brain Tumor Support Group, we knew the kind of death he would endure as we watched those we loved die horribly.

With no option but to suffer an agonizing death, Randy begged me to change what he felt was a cruel system under which the government insisted terminally-ill patients had to suffer and couldn't seek assistance in dying. Randy asked me to promise I would change the law in Washington so terminally-ill patients had a choice—one he didn't get. I promised him. But how? You promise anything to someone you adore as they lay dying.

After Randy's death, I agonized about that promise. I searched for a way to fulfill it. In that search I came across the non-profit organization, Compassion and Choices of Washington. I was led down a campaign path that provided the opportunity to keep my promise to Randy. It became my full time commitment. I was willing to do anything and everything to keep that final promise to Randy.

On that journey, I marveled that just as it takes a village to raise children well, so also does it take a village to pass a Death with Dignity Law. I met hundreds of donors dedicating money so terminally-ill patients would have a choice in their dying pain. It takes a lot of money to educate the public about a new law and counteract lies perpetuated by the opposition. I met hundreds of volunteers committing countless hours in memory of a loved one or ones who just felt this was the compassionate thing to do for those who share your village. I met thousands of voters who understood this law doesn't force any belief on anyone. No one has to use it. It just offers another medical option.

When I first watched How To Die In Oregon with Peter Richardson in the safety net of my home, my reaction was one of both sorrow and anger. I felt sorrow for those in the film who, like me, grieved a loved one. Alongside that sorrow sat anger that Randy suffered in a way the patients in the film didn't. The peace and comfort they experienced in the final days leading up to death because they had a choice was something Randy craved and begged to have. I mentioned the anger to a friend who responded, "That's why you worked so hard to pass the Death with Dignity law. Now, no terminally-ill patient in Washington will have to suffer like Randy did." My anger melted away as a promise kept was recognized.

At a showing of the film, I met a man whose wife used the Washington Law. He expressed gratitude for her peaceful death. How odd it was to hear the words gratitude and death together. He said the law was a legacy to Randy. Knowing that because of the law, his wife's death left him with less haunting memories than Randy's did for me, I felt comforted. Randy was kind, gentle and caring. He would be the first to say if his suffering in dying meant others had a choice he didn't get, then it was worth it. None of us know for certain what our death will be like or whether we'd want to use this end-of-life option. One thing I do know for certain: I want a choice.

As I write this, I'm on a plane to the funeral of Randy's sister-in-law. She died too young of cancer. Fortunately her suffering was managed by hospice; for that I'm grateful. Randy wasn't as fortunate. Not all dying pain is manageable. There is no guarantee any of us will leave this world peacefully, free of pain, surrounded by loved ones. This law brings terminally-ill patients closer to that possibility.

The intimacy with which the documentary shows why patients choose this option is told better than I ever can. I will always be grateful to filmmaker Peter Richardson and editor Greg Snider for their respectful approach. They educated the world on why advances in medicine that keep people alive longer need to be balanced with the choice to end one's pain in dying. The Oregon and Washington Death with Dignity Acts change the deaths of terminally-ill patients and in so doing change their lives and the lives of their families for the good. I will always be grateful for being able to meet so many wonderful people who work tirelessly for others so they have this choice. They have changed my life for the good.


Posted by Pascal Marbois (not verified) on October 3, 2012 at 08:18 a.m.

If your are right and you fight, you win. Fight on.

Posted by Laurie (not verified) on November 15, 2012 at 07:30 p.m.

I've been a nurse for about 15 years; but my question to you do you have to be in a terminal state to be considered a patient for an assisted suicide? To be honest living in such physical pain from day to day unmanageable by certain physicians creates a days like living in hell itself. Now can such a perso who has chronic, daily pain unmanageable by specialists be considered for assisted suicide?

Posted by Melissa Barber on November 16, 2012 at 02:48 p.m.

Thank you for asking, Laurie. Under Death with Dignity Acts, a person must have been given a terminal diagnosis with six months or fewer to live in order to qualify to request the life-ending medication. These laws are written to allow for an additional end-of-life option when death is imminent.

Melissa Barber
Director of Digital Communications
Death with Dignity National Center

Posted by Linda Garland (not verified) on May 6, 2013 at 01:21 p.m.

This information is important for our future and thank you for your vision, integrity and bold steps in bringing this to us.

Posted by Holly (not verified) on December 19, 2013 at 02:05 p.m.

I just recently watched How to Die in Oregon. It had a very profound effect on me. It was extremely well made & I thought really protrayed the Death with Dignity Act in a positive and educated light. Nancy's story really stood out to me as well. I can't even imagine what it must have been like for her and her husband, to go through all that pain - physically and emotionally. I want to applaud Nancy for all her efforts in Washington to pass the Death with Dignity Act in her state. Nancy is very admirable. I wish the world was filled with more people like her.

Posted by Johane Crispin (not verified) on September 14, 2014 at 10:59 p.m.

I just watched "how to die in Oregon." I was deeply touched by all the stories I saw and heard. thank you for having the courage to fight for others to be able to die with dignity. I'm a nurse and saw already too many painful deaths where people didn't have a voice in their death other than the ones from their doctors. yes I do deeply believe that a human being should have the right to decide when and how they go. the film made me cry and I cried also for all those who don't have a voice who had to suffer until the end with no way out. nancy did it for love and actually we should all do it for love; her courage throughout that journey is commendable. thanks to you and to all the others for fighting for that right to be recognize everywhere. I live in Canada. it's not here yet

Posted by Kris (not verified) on October 28, 2014 at 02:43 p.m.

Just saw the documentary and it changed my point of view. I never thought it was ok to take your life but I now feel differently. It actually gives me a sense of peace that there is an option. To all involved in the documentary my hat is off to you, well done.

Posted by Katherine (not verified) on November 21, 2014 at 05:14 p.m.

I never watch movies more than once, but I have watched the documentary so many times. It touched me so deeply, as I am watching it again, and I found this site just looking to see how you were doing now. I think you're a wonderful person & so strong. Thank you for your story & your hard work. So sorry about your sister in-law.

Posted by Alicia Ahn (not verified) on December 26, 2014 at 08:15 p.m.

Have there been any exception cases to the 6 months prognosis criteria ?
What about progressive (albeit slowly) dementia and neurologic disorders where the patient wants to make a decision while still having capacity but can not do this because prognosis is not yet down to 6 months but fears that by the time prognosis is "6 months" he or she will no longer have capacity. Thank you.

Posted by Peter Korchnak on January 30, 2015 at 05:28 p.m.

@Katherine: Thank you for sharing.

@Alicia Ahn: No, the 6-month prognosis is a standard rule in death-with-dignity laws that is intended to prevent abuse of the law. All patients wishing to use the law must be of sound mind, i.e. mentally competent at each instance (oral, writing) of requesting the medication.

Peter Korchnak
Digital Communications Manager
Death with Dignity National Center

Add new comment

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.

donate today