Lisa West is Executive Director of The Bill & Betsy Scheben Care Center in Florence, Kentucky.
I lost my father-in-law Mike to lung cancer on Father’s Day, 2017. Less than six months later, my mother Janice died of liver failure. While both had living wills and while their wishes were respected when they both opted to stop treatment, there was no dignity in how they passed. They were two of the strongest people I have known and if given the option, I feel would have wanted to truly die on their own terms.
My father-in-law was a man of many talents and a joy to be around. A printer by trade and a Mr. Fix It by nature, he could build and fix anything. He was very funny; he loved to make jokes. At his memorial service, one of the things we talked about was how anytime we were around him, invariably we would find ourselves laughing so hard we were crying.
He’d always longed to travel the country. Soon after his wife retired, they sold all their belongings and hit the road in an R.V. After only a few months on the road, living his dream of exploring new places, he looked 10 years younger. He was so happy and content.
A Fateful Call
Not long after that, we got a call from his wife. She told us that Mike was having a lot of issues with a particularly nasty cold he just couldn’t shake. They saw a doctor down South, where they were traveling at the time. The doctor did a chest X-ray and found a spot on Mike’s lung. He told him that he needed to go home and seek treatment for lung cancer.
The news hit Mike like a ton of bricks. He returned home, saw his doctor, and received an official diagnosis: Stage IV lung cancer. By that point the cancer had spread to his bones, and he was hurting and demoralized.
He became very depressed. He had a lot of difficulty eating. As he became increasingly frail, he started to lose control of his body. In the process, he also lost his dignity. That was unbelievably difficult and humiliating for him.
“I’m Ready to Go”
I operate an adult day care facility and am familiar with the struggles many people face at the end of life. Mike knew this.
Near the end of his life, when he only would allow me and a few other people to visit him, he asked me, “Can I talk to the professional you, not the daughter-in-law you?” I told him of course he could. He said, “I’m ready to go. I don’t understand why I’m still here.”
He wanted assurances, that I or someone else would make sure his wishes were honored if he could no longer express them himself. Through my tears, I let him know that we would look out for him.
I remember visiting Mike on Father’s Day, when he died. His wife told us he had been unconscious for the past 24 hours. When we got there, I took his hand and loudly said, “your favorite daughter-in-law’s here!” He opened his eyes. A while later, we all left the room briefly to talk. When I came back, he was laying very still, eyes closed. I said his name loudly. He looked at me, took one last breath, and that was it.
I think he waited for us to be there. Even at the end, he wanted to make sure his wife wasn’t alone. It’s a testament to the kind of person Mike was.
If Kentucky had a Death with Dignity law, I think my father-in-law would have used it. He did not have the dignified death he wanted—that he deserved to have.
Shortly after Mike passed away, my mother was diagnosed with liver failure. She had gained quite a bit of weight and my father urged her to see a doctor, but she was strong-willed, tough as nails, and loathed hospitals, so she did not seek treatment right away.
We were told she had a prognosis of 3 years, but her condition deteriorated much more quickly than anyone had anticipated. She had a series of invasive treatments that left her drained. With each treatment, she not only lost strength but the will to keep fighting.
It was so difficult to watch such a strong, hard-working woman struggle so much. She worked until she was 79 years old; I’m convinced that if she hadn’t gotten ill she’d still be working.
She spent her life being in control. She was truly the boss of the family. But she also had a very dry sense of humor and loved a good joke. I wish she’d gotten to hold onto all of those qualities until her final days, but her illness robbed her of her former self.
I think of [Death with Dignity] as an empowering option for people who are terminally ill and have absolutely no hope left. When you get to that point, you should be able to decide when it’s your time to go.
Opting for Hospice
Her last trip to the ICU was the beginning of the end. She could have opted to have the same invasive treatments every other day, or she could choose to enter hospice care. We talked about it as a family. She wanted to meet with the hospice staff and nurses and discuss what her options were. I firmly believe that whatever’s going to be done has to be their choice.
She decided that she would do one more treatment and then enter hospice. She opted to do hospice care at a facility instead of at home.
My dad, her high school sweetheart to whom she had been married for 60 years, stayed by her side until the end. It was so moving to see that kind of love, dedication and respect for her wishes.
We had some time with her when she was still alert, talkative, laughing and being herself before she started declining again. It’s nice to have some happy memories of that time. I am grateful for that time. I know not everyone is so lucky.
A few days before she passed, my dad called me at work and said that my mother was hysterical. He didn’t know what to do. I rearranged my schedule to be there with her.
My mother is one tough cookie, but she was crying. I asked her what was wrong. Much like Mike had, she pleaded, “Don’t let them do anything to me that I don’t want.” I told her, “you’re in control.” She made my dad promise as well. He was crying so hard he couldn’t speak, but he nodded yes.
We knew the end was near so we gathered around her bed. We cued up some Elvis on my phone (she was a huge Elvis fan), took turns kissing her goodnight, laid down near her, and turned out the lights. It was a short time after that she was gone.
Her death was peaceful, but she still suffered near the end of her life. The most difficult part was to hear both my mother and Mike beg to die. If she had had the option of assisted dying, I think it would have brought her great comfort and peace of mind.
An Individual Choice
I was raised Catholic. I know the Church sees Death with Dignity as suicide, which is supposed to be a mortal sin. But I don’t think of it as suicide. I think of it as an empowering option for people who are terminally ill and have absolutely no hope left. When you get to that point, you should be able to decide when it’s your time to go.
You, and nobody else, should have the ultimate control over your death.