In this essay, journalist Katy Butler ’71 describes how her mother, Valerie Butler MA ’70, fought the medical establishment to avoid prolonged suffering, and thus lived a “full life to the end.” This essay is adapted from Katy’s new book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, which was published today, September 10, by Scribner.
A generation of middle-aged sons and daughters are facing this dilemma, in an era when advanced medical technologies hold out the illusion that death can be perfectly controlled and timed.
…dying moved from the home to the hospital, obliterating Western death rituals, transforming the meaning of the body, and changing the way families, doctors, nurses—and even the dying themselves—behaved at the deathbed. Dying was transformed from a spiritual ordeal into a technological flail.
Family members who once wiped the brows of the dying were restricted to visiting hours. Often there were no “last words” because the mouths of the dying were stopped with tubes and their minds sunk in chemical twilights to keep them from tearing out the lines that bound them to Earth.
…she died too soon for my taste. I agonized over my failure to fly in and help her. But she died the death she chose, not the death anyone else had in mind. Her dying was painful, messy and imperfect, but that is the uncontrollable nature of dying. I tell you her story that we may begin to create a new “Art of Dying” for our biotechnical age. She died a good-enough death, and she faced it head-on.
Image: from the article
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