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Note: This is an everything/nothing post. That is to say, the subject means everything to me and nothing to the general public. If you’re here to read programming or startup stuff, skip this one.

My grandmother died last month. It was sad, but not unexpected. Last summer, both of us visited my parents in Spokane. One day, she was short of breath. I took her to the hospital. After hours of tests and waiting, the doctors said her lungs were in horrible shape. The cause was most likely a form of rheumatoid arthritis. There was nothing they could do to restore the lost lung function. She’d have to be on oxygen for the rest of her life. I knew, right then, that she was going to die from this. I’m pretty sure everyone did, but nobody said it out loud.

I tried to spend more time with her while we were both in Spokane. She tolerated her new restrictions quite well. When she left to go home to Illinois, we hugged and said goodbye. I was pretty sure that would be the last time I’d see her. I was right. Over the next six months, grandma slowly suffocated as her lungs turned into scar tissue. It would have been nice to have seen her one last time.

The funeral was sad, but not unpleasant. Grandma had had plenty of time to arrange everything. The casket, the eulogist, the music, the burial plot, it was all very… grandma. Too kitschy for my tastes, but heartfelt and sincere.

One interesting experience was going through grandma’s stuff. She had collected a lifetime of photographs, letters, and newspaper clippings. Many of my relatives knew the people in the photographs, and recounted amusing or interesting stories about them. There were some faces lost to history. I wondered if grandma had known who they were.

I have a habit of thinking, “How can this situation be improved?” So often, the answer was, “We should have done this before grandma died.” Everyone would have seen her one last time, and she would have appreciated the company. She probably would have enjoyed going through her memorabilia, telling us stories about the faces in her old pictures.

Sadly, there are practicalities discouraging any sort of pre-death get-together. It’s hard to predict when someone will die, even if they’re close to death’s door. There’s also the fact that many are stricken with senility or dementia before their heart stops. Nobody wants to be remembered liked that.

I also have a habit of asking, “How could this situation be worse?” Who by Very Slow Decay gives some idea of how bad it could have been. Grandma could have suffered much more for much longer. She could have lost her mind. She could have gone into debt dealing with medical expenses. Her family could have gone into debt.

There is an obvious way to improve both the best- and worst-case scenarios when someone is dying, but nobody wants to talk about it: Let people choose their time to die. I doubt grandma would have been so inclined, but she could have said, “This is the last Christmas I’ll be with you folks. Party at my place.” Perhaps if such behavior were more common, she would have been so inclined. But instead, she missed her party. She didn’t hear all the good things people said. She missed seeing a hundred of her family and friends, all together because of her, all thankful.[1]

Grandma was unique, but she wasn’t in a unique sitiuation. Every year, millions of grandmas and grandpas die. Many of them aren’t as lucky as my grandma. They do go into debt. They do become senile. They suffer in ways that even psychopaths would hesitate to inflict on others. Hearing the story of just one of these people would haunt your dreams. In aggregate, the agony experienced is greater than any human mind could begin to comprehend. It is no exaggeration to say that the ban on assisted suicide causes more suffering and costs more money than many wars. A significant portion of our GDP is spent, in effect, torturing the elderly. So many suffer so greatly, so needlessly, because of some flimsy religious justifications about respecting the sanctity of life.

This is one of the great moral failings of our time. We should be ashamed.

  1. I’m sugar-coating it a little. There were some petty squabbles, but that’s expected at any family reunion.

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