He missed his companion, moping around the backyard; his usual child-like energy had disappeared. Years past his prime, he lived longer than anyone expected. He walked with a limp from losing his leg in an accident and his hips and back were twisted from tortuous arthritis. It was clear his body was no longer absorbing his food properly as we all watched him waste away. It wasn’t long after that that his loving disposition melted into lethargic days of watching us all play from a soft, grassy spot in the shade. The pain grew too much to even stand up to greet newcomers at the door.
We all let tears fall when my uncles took him to the vet knowing he would never come back. But at least we knew he would stop his suffering and finally find peace. If our grandfather reached this point in his life where his condition was terminal and each day was more excruciating than the last it would not be assumed it was time to ‘take him to the vet!’ Yes, it is a leap to compare an animal, like a dog, to a human but what about when it comes to quality of life? What if my grandfather woke up every day hoping to find comfort from a hug only to feel more pain than relief until one day he asked for the pain to stop – forever?
Why is this question so heartbreaking that it makes most not even see euthanasia as an option? It means assisted, gentle, painless, happy death. Thinking about it like that it doesn’t sound so bad. Still, the land of the free doesn’t allow us to legally have this option. Though modern medicine has its good points, has it allowed us to believe that death does not have to be a part of life? Is it this sense of denial that is keeping us from allowing a dying wish? Before the introduction of modern medicine, euthanasia was a common option.
Back when mankind consisted of nomadic tribes, everyone needed to be useful when it came time for the seasonal move. They needed to be able to help carry everything, help set up camp, help cook, help gather, help hunt. Once a family member became so ill they required more help than they could give, they were left behind when the others moved on.
Once a family member in an Intuit tribe becomes elderly or terminally ill they become a drag on the group. They are unable to hunt, gather, or build. Their advice and stories have been told – and they are left on a patch of ice as the rest of the family moves on.
These last two old-school examples of how societies applied their versions of euthanasia makes our version of assisted death not sound so cruel. Not to say that these older societies were heartless. They grieved the loss of their family members just as we do today. Archeologists have found traces of pollen from flowers on skeletal remains from these ancient societies suggesting that even then they grieved by using flowers as symbols of ‘good bye’ as we do today. The difference is that, unlike then, we are stuck in the denial that death does not have to be part of life.