Deathbed Decisions

Making choices for a dying relative when you are of different faiths


On January 4th, my aunt died at the age of 99.

Alexandra Adler was an extraordinary woman--a brilliant neurologist and psychiatrist. She was a true pioneer, one of the first women neurologists at Harvard Medical School, the first person to ever study civilian cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, and one of the most important interpreters of the theories of her father, Alfred Adler, who, along with Freud and Jung, helped to found modern psychiatry.

But as she lay dying, it was very difficult to know her wishes.

I have always held to the notion of a "good death." I believe that if you can't go in your sleep, the best thing would be to die at home, with your friends and loved ones around you. I have a friend whose father and mother died in exactly this way: at home, lucid to almost the last moment, with the whole family sitting by the bedside.

But none of my relatives go that way. Thirty years ago after cancer had entered almost every part of her body, my mother died in horrid distress and confusion, barely conscious and tied to every kind of machinery.

Three years ago, my father died after two horrendous weeks on a respirator. A doctor, himself, and a fighter to the end, he would have nothing to do with a living will or a "do not resuscitate" order.

Doctors and atheists make up a large part of my family, so it's hard to put into practice the wisdom in books like the "Pagan Book of Living and Dying," particularly when your relatives have other things in mind.

Like most in her generation, my aunt never had a living will nor had she ever mentioned her intentions. We knew she wanted to be cremated, and that she wanted to make sure there was no religious ceremony. Her attitudes toward religion could be summed up in her view that most religious experiences were examples of schizophrenia.

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