I’m sitting here with Golly in my lap. He is my brain damaged cat who made a miraculous recovery. Neither he nor I are in any danger of dying any time soon, but as I look at his trusting little face I know that someday I’m going to have to make a decision about the end of his life.
I have only found the courage to have one of my cats sent to sleep – in 30 years – and that was only about 6 years ago. It’s a decision that I find terribly hard to make, and so I procrastinate, hoping against hope for a miracle until it’s too late. Yet it’s not the process itself that sucks away at my courage, it’s the fear of the pain I know I will feel, when my furkid is gone.
Rosie was a gorgeous tortoiseshell cat with a personality to match. But she was already thirteen years old, and she was sick. I watched her, day by day, and I told myself that so long as she could find some pleasure in every day, she was not ready to go.
And then one day it was obvious, even to me, that the awful day had come. The vet had been warning me for a couple of weeks, but it was not until I saw Rosie staggering around in obvious distress that I found the courage to help her.
We are incredibly fortunate to have a gentle, caring travelling vet who will come to the house. I called the vet, and she came. I asked that Rosie be given something to ease the pain and make her drowsy. Then I asked that I be given the chance to hold her so she would feel no fear.
The vet inserted a thing into Rosie’s leg so when it was time the chemicals could be introduced to her body without any further trauma. And then the vet left, giving me half an hour with Rosie.
I’m crying now, remembering that moment, but at the time I locked my emotions away and just cuddled her in the big recliner. She was mostly asleep but I could feel how relaxed she was.
The daugher and I stroked her and talked about all the funny things she had done – like climbing up onto the roof – regularly – and then crying piteously for me to climb the ladder and get her down. Given that I’m scared of heights this was no small feat, and she made me do it at least six times before the then Husband put his foot down and said she was messing with my mind. She was. When she realised I wasn’t going to climb the ladder this time, she came down all by herself… and never did the roof thing again!
And so we reminisced, until the vet returned. She asked if we were ready. I think I nodded. I saw the needle go into the thingie in Rosie’s leg and then I saw the vet check her with the stethoscope.
There was a note of surprise, and relief in the vet’s voice. And then my tears came.
I wasn’t crying for Rosie, I was crying for myself. For Rosie, the end was without struggle or pain or fear, just a gentle drifting away. She knew she was safe. She knew she was loved. And so she just… let go.
But this post is not about Rosie, it’s about how we define euthanasia, for humans.
In all the talk about euthanasia, the language seems to imply that there is a ‘victim’ who is ‘killed’. This language has the effect of making people feel guilty – as if the person could live a much longer, happier life but is having that time cut short.
That’s a load of bunkum. What people with terminal illnesses are asking for is to have that last struggle eased so that they can slip away as gently as Rosie.
Make no mistake, dying is a struggle.
I sat with my Father for two days, listening to him struggle for each breath. He had a morphine ‘driver’ that automatically sent a low does of the pain killer into his body every hour or so. I don’t think he was in pain, or even conscious in a real sense, but at some level his body was still fighting to pull air into his lungs.
Comparing those two deaths that I have witnessed, I know which I would prefer. Yet for humans, that last act of love and compassion is forbidden. People with terminal illnesses can’t ask their loved ones to help them in those last awful moments because any such help could see those loved ones prosecuted. Doctors can’t help either, for the same reason.
So those who are dying have to circumvent the law. Worse still, because they have to be strong enough to take their own lives, they are dying too soon. And they are dying alone.
I truly believe that when there is nothing more to try, when the last treatment has failed, when nothing remains but palliative care, we, as a society should have the courage to offer the gift of a gentle death.
When should this gentle death be offered? When the person, and his or her family have accepted that death is inevitable, and imminent.
I’m not talking about letting people die months before they might die naturally. I’m talking about the days or hours before natural death, when the person is ready to go, but their heart refuses to stop beating. They are facing the final struggle and there will be only one outcome. That is when the gift should be offered. Not to kill, but to ease.
For me the difference between ‘kill’ and ‘ease’ is so huge I cannot put it into words, yet if this debate is ever to help the dying, we all need to see that difference.
I still hate the thought of anyone or anything that I love dying. That will never change. But Dad, and a small tortoiseshell cat taught me that death is inevitable. How we deal with death, however, is not.
To me, euthanasia is the gift of love.