A Trip to a 'Death with Dignity' Clinic

Author: Fr. Peter Pilsner

A Trip to a "Death with Dignity" Clinic

Fr. Peter Pilsner

As you may know, a federal appeals court recently ruled that New York State's laws on assisted suicide were unconstitutional. If this decision is not overturned by the Supreme Court, the practice of active euthanasia will, I think, become common in our state, if not our country. Dr. Bernard Nathanson has already said that some day there will be "euthanasia clinics" just as there are abortion clinics. His statement sparked my imagination a bit, and so I wrote a story imagining what a trip to a euthanasia clinic might be like. The point of the story is that the "euthanasia clinic," like the abortion clinic, will be characterized by lies, deception, and denial of the horrible crime that takes place there.


A richly colored mid-sized car pulled through the gate and into the parking lot of what was once a residence near the center of town. There was a sign at the gate, in flowery, script letters reading, "Gentle Rest Clinic." The car pulled into a handicapped parking space in front of a wheelchair-accessible door. Two other cars parked further away. It was a beautiful spring day, and crocuses were blooming in the flower beds lining the carefully manicured lawn. The car stopped and the driver got out and opened the door on the passenger's side. He helped a frail old woman swing her legs outside the car and stand up. She was neatly dressed and well groomed, as if she had come from the beauty parlor, ready for a wedding or baby shower.

"Where is this?" she asked.

"We're going to the doctor," he replied. A younger woman, his wife, got out of the back seat, carrying a garment bag. Hearing these words, she started to get a bit teary-eyed.

They waited a few minutes for the people in the other cars to catch up. As they stood there, they enjoyed a few moments of "Morning" by Grieg, playing softly from hidden speakers in the garden. When the group assembled, the man looked them, taking notice of who had come, and even greater notice of who was missing.

"Come on everyone," he said. "Let's do this for grandma."

"Oh, look at everyone!" the old woman said. "They look so nice.

Are we going to lunch?"

"We're taking you to see grandpa," said one of the teenage grandsons.

A few of the others looked at him as if he had said something wrong. This was not one of the rehearsed responses. However, there was no need for concern. The old woman's Alzheimer's was so advanced by now that she had already forgotten that she was told she was going to the doctor. Indeed, by now she seemed happy to hear that she was going "to see grandpa," and showed no awareness that her husband had died eight years ago.

Her son rang the doorbell, and a woman in an expensive looking pink dress opened the door. "Hello. Is this Mrs. Murphy?" she asked. When he told her it was, she welcomed them with a warm smile, as if into her home for an early lunch. She sat them in a living room, decorated in whites and pastels, with a few impressionist paintings on the walls. The one over the fireplace was different, though. It was a sketch of the head and shoulders of a man. He was wearing a robe with a hood hanging from the back of the collar, making him look like one of the monks of old. His face wore a noble, solemn expression, and in the space beneath his shoulders was written in calligraphy, "When I am no longer myself, I am no longer alive."

Soon after they came in and began to get themselves seated, a man in a roman collar entered the room. "Good morning," he said, in a soft, resonant voice. "I'm pastor Tom, from the Church of Jesus Risen. I'll be here to pray with you when Mrs. Murphy is in the bedroom." "Thank you so much for coming, pastor," said Mrs. Murphy's daughter- in-law.

"We asked our parish priest to come, but he wouldn't."

"He practically threw us out of the rectory," her husband added, his voice revealing a note of resentment.

"What a shame," said Pastor Tom, shaking his head. "That's always how it's been with the Catholic Church. It doesn't change with the times."

Another man entered the room. "Good morning everyone. I'm doctor Smith. I'll be helping Mrs. Murphy today. Is her son, Mr. Murphy, here?"

"That's me," the man replied.

"I have just one last thing for you to sign." Dr. Smith led Mr. Murphy out of the living room. As they crossed the hall, another family was coming in the door, wheeling in an old man who looked barely conscious. When they got to the office, Dr. Smith took out a folder and put it on the desk.

"I'm sorry about this," he says, "but as it stands, the law requires you to sign one last time on the day of the event."

So Mr. Murphy signed. One thing he resented about this whole process was the paperwork. But at least, thanks to his foresight, things were less complicated than they might have been. He had had his mother appoint him her health care proxy when they first learned about her degenerative condition. That way, he could make decisions on her behalf when the time came that she was no longer competent to make them for herself. It was surprising, he thought to himself, that things were at this point so soon. He had expected it to take years. At times he had his reservations, but as he told himself so often, there was no choice. His mother existed in a world that was just one mental blur after the next, and could hardly be described as living. She never would have wanted to go on like this. And if he put her in a nursing home, she would just languish there, with no more purpose than to allow the home and the government to collect her assets. Was it fair to his father, to let an institution drain away in a few years everything he had worked a lifetime to earn?

Signing the last piece of paper was a relief. Now everything would take it's course. Funeral pre-arrangements were made. (Indeed, notices to family and friends were mailed out a month ago.) Legally, everything was in order. He had spoken to her lawyer and made sure that her will was drawn up correctly. And the lawyer assured him that, thanks to the marvels of electronic banking, the inheritance would be transferred to the correct accounts once they gave him a copy of the death certificate. Now the last step, to release Gentle Rest, and it's professional medical staff from liability.

The doctor smiled. There seemed to be a look of relief on his face too. He put his hand on Mr. Murphy's arm, and said. "It's for the best. I've seen cases where I've had my doubts, but this is definitely the thing to do here."

They left the office, and to his surprise Mr. Murphy was led by the doctor directly to the bedroom. His mother was sitting on a bed with a lace canopy over it, and the family was gathering around. A nurse was at her side. Pastor Tom was there as well. "Mom," said the daughter-in-law, as the two approached, "This is doctor Smith."

"Hello, doctor," she responded. Dr. Smith stood next to Mr. Murphy, nodded his head, and forced a smile. "I think it's time we got Mrs. Murphy to bed," said the nurse.

Then she started helping her take off her shoes and lie down.

"I don't want to go to bed," said Mrs. Murphy.

"You have to Mom," said her son. "You have to get some rest.

The doctor says."

"Oh," she replied. "I want my night gown."

"You don't need it, grandma," said the oldest granddaughter.

After she laid down obediently, the nurse went to the opposite side of the bed from where the family was placed. She started working with her hands under the covers, but no one could see what she was doing. At one point, some in the family thought they heard the pulling apart and sealing of velcro.

When she was done, the nurse said to the family. "Everything's ready now. You can tell her good night." One by one, they kissed her and said, "Good night," as the Gentle Rest Clinic counselors had told them to do. Last was her son. "I love you son," said Mrs. Murphy. He kissed her and said, "I love you too." With difficulty he kept his composure.

"Are you ready?" said Dr. Smith.

"Yes," he replied.

"It will only take about five or ten minutes."

The family was escorted by Pastor Tom back to the living room.

In his most gentle voice, he read for them the twenty-third Psalm, as well as a poem, written in the first person, asking loved ones to "remember me in the good days, when I was still me."

Soon, the doctor came in to tell them that they could come back into the bedroom. They came, and saw her lying peacefully as if asleep.

"May she rest in peace," said Pastor Tom.

"It was very beautiful," said the nurse.

"It was really the best thing," said the doctor.

As they prepared to leave, the daughter in law handed the garment bag to the nurse. "Please give this to funeral director," she said. "The gown may be big on her, but it's the one she chose as her favorite."

As they went out of the room, they saw the woman in the pink dress again. She was not smiling now, but looked sad and sympathetic. "Please call us if there is anything we can do to help," she said.

She and Pastor Tom made sure that each family member left with two brochures. One had the title "Bereavement Counseling," and the other "Dealing with guilt issues -- I did the right thing, so why do I feel so bad?"

Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN