“When I [asked] before, ‘How would you prefer to die if you had the choice?’, that’s what Brittany got. She was able to die peacefully in her sleep,” Diaz said. “My younger brother was there, and so were some of her friends. We all kind of looked at each other and said ‘If I live to be 100 I want that.’ We should all be so lucky.”
Maynard’s story brought the right-to-die movement back to the forefront in the U.S., with more than 20 states, as well as the District of Columbia, introducing right-to-die legislation after her death. Diaz now lobbies for the issue, keeping “the promise I made to Brittany that I would continue to fight for this right for the individual to be in control of their own dying process.”
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More broadly, Maynard’s story is a reminder that while death and suffering are often linked, they don’t always have to be.
Another rhetorical question asked at the panel was posed by BJ Miller, the executive director of the Zen Hospice Project and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
“Who here hasn’t suffered?” he asked. From the audience, nothing. “I’m still batting zero percent on that question,” he said. “No one has ever raised their hand.”
Miller works in palliative care, which he describes as “the multidisciplinary pursuit of quality of life and the mitigation of suffering.” He works with terminal patients, but not exclusively. Anyone who is suffering in some way is eligible for palliative care. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of hospitals that have palliative care teams increased by 165 percent, according to the Center to Advance Palliative Care.
Miller said the healthcare system traditionally “has revolved around diseases or body parts. You can be made to feel incidental, like you’re a vector for the disease. I don’t mean to vilify it, there’s a good reason for that. [But] it turns out people are important in this mix.” Palliative care involves art, humanities, philosophy, and design, all things intended to appeal to the senses, which Miller emphasized the importance of.
“If you have access to just one sense, you have the potential to feel connected to the people around you and to this planet,” he said. “If we really want to live until we die … this is a way to stay in touch until your very last breath.”
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The rise in interest in both the right-to-die movement and palliative care reflects a broader trend in people becoming more interested in their own deaths—preparing for them, planning for them. This interest comes at an apt time, since more Americans experienced pain and depression in the last year of their lives in 2010 than did in 1998.
Panel moderator Courtney Martin, a columnist for On Being, noted twin themes of control and suffering that permeated the talk, wide-ranging as it was. When it comes to death, it seems people have a desire to maximize the first and minimize the second.