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The Right Side of History: Cindy Merrill on Advocating for Death with Dignity in Texas

July 31, 2017

This is the second in a series of interviews with grassroots advocates who are participants in Death with Dignity National Center’s new State Leadership Incubator. Today, we’re speaking with Cindy Merrill, co-founder and administrator of Texas Death with Dignity.

Other stories in the series:

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Cindy Merrill considers herself an unlikely activist. Despite spending a career as a prosecutor in Harris County, Texas, where she regularly spoke out on behalf of crime victims and mastered the art of public speaking, she never sought out opportunities to champion a cause. It was her father’s debilitating illness and struggle at the end of life that helped her find her voice outside the courtroom and at the grassroots.

Cindy says she “did not have a clue about the Death with Dignity movement” in 1996, when her father’s battle with Parkinson’s disease and lung issues advanced. “I was so busy with my work at that time. It only got on my radar when my father asked me to get him a gun because he had had it with life.

“I was shocked,” she says. “My father was blind by then, but he heard my gasp. He said he didn’t mean it, but we both knew he did.”

Cindy Merrill with her father.

That heartbreaking moment planted the seed for Cindy’s involvement in the fight for end-of-life choice.

“As I watched my father’s incredible decline and especially after that request, I started to think, ‘Why does anyone have to go through this?’” Cindy recalls.

Her father died in 1997 at the age of 88. Watching him endure prolonged suffering and lose autonomy and control as he approached death changed Cindy’s life.

Fighting for End-of-Life Choice

“Since then, and even more so after I retired, I have been seriously thinking about our responsibility, as human beings, to those in the throes of intractable pain and suffering at the end of life,” Cindy says.

But it took an instance of sheer serendipity to discover her inner activist.

“Several years after my father died, we were out in a small town in Texas,” Cindy says. “We were in a hardware store. I saw a little hutch with books on it. I went over to look at it, and the first book that hit my eye was, Must We Suffer Our Way to Death?. “I grabbed that book right away and did research about Death with Dignity.”

She spent the subsequent years educating herself about end-of-life options, including physician-assisted dying, and successful campaigns to pass Death with Dignity legislation.

One day the dynamics are going to change. We need to be on the right side of history.

—Cindy Merrill

It was a lonely journey. Cindy discovered that there was no organized campaign for Death with Dignity in Texas, nor any official means to connect with others who felt the same commitment to the cause. That is, until she connected with the Death with Dignity National Center.

An Ally Emerges

“Death with Dignity contacted me and another Houstonian woman and said, you two should get together,” Cindy says.

Once she met Penny Shelfer, Cindy knew that she had found both a fellow advocate and a friend.

Like Cindy, Penny’s experiences with death and dying informed her dedication to making Death with Dignity an option for all Texans. A breast cancer survivor who had watched both her parents slowly succumb to disease, Penny was determined to ensure that others had the “beautiful and humane” option to die with dignity.

The two women co-founded Texas Death with Dignity in 2013. It quickly became apparent that they had complementary skills.

“We realized right off the bat that I did not have a personality for grassroots organizing,” Cindy says, laughing. “I’m a socialized introvert. Penny was much more extroverted. She took charge of developing the Facebook page.” (Many of the group’s Facebook followers do what they can to spread the word on the need for a death with dignity law in Texas.) Cindy, with the help of her husband, Stan, created and maintains the website TexasDeathwithDignity.org. Cindy also connected with supporters and took on a public speaking role. “I was used to speaking,” Cindy says, having done it for decades during her career.

From left: Cindy Merrill, Penny Shelfer, and Cathy Cramer from Wildflower Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin, Texas.

Slowly but surely, Cindy and Penny grew a network of supporters. In two short years, the women had built a robust advocacy effort through tenacity and dedication. But in December 2015, unforeseen tragedy would strike.

“When Penny passed away unexpectedly, it was a horrible blow,” says Cindy. Not only was she grieving the shocking loss of a friend, she also had to shoulder Penny’s work in addition to her own.

Spreading the Word

Cindy has continued to speak at events and in media appearances. She has worked hard to make inroads with a variety of educational institutions and community and faith-based groups.

“The way I frame it is, I know there are members of your group, congregation, organization who want to hear about Death with Dignity,” Cindy says. “Even if they are opposed to it, I think they will want to hear about end-of-life issues.”

Empowerment Through Dignity50

Cindy is a participant in Death with Dignity’s Dignity50 state leadership incubator. The lessons she has learned through online trainings and other educational tools in the project’s pilot phase have helped her speak with confidence to supportive and skeptical audiences alike.

“The basics of messaging webinar was extremely helpful,” Cindy says. “They taught us phrases to deflect hostile questions and how to pivot. Without really knowing it, I bring out a lot of those messages when I contact people.”

“The program has empowered me in so many ways,” she adds.

An Uphill Battle in Texas

Cindy has no illusions about the uphill battle in which she and her fellow Texas Death with Dignity advocates are engaged. But she still sees a window of opportunity.

“The opportunity is that other states are passing it,” Cindy says. “Texans are starting to say, Why them and not us? I know it because they write me!

“What the Death with Dignity organization is doing across the nation, getting states much closer to passing their own laws, is making a difference.

“One day the dynamics are going to change. We need to be on the right side of history.”

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