Virtual Voices

Helping Mom starve to death

Life

Jane Gross, a retired reporter for The New York Times, has written a book about helping her mother die. And while euthanasia and assisted suicide are deeply disturbing but hardly new concepts, something about her story is especially upsetting. Perhaps in part it's because she chose to write a book about it in the first place. Maybe it's because my own elderly parents are suddenly facing serious mental and physical problems that I find Gross' story so repugnant.

The book, A Bittersweet Season, was recently excerpted in Britain's Daily Mail newspaper. The subheading of the article read, "They were never close-but then Jane agreed to help her ailing mother starve herself to death. And that shocking pact brought them together."

Jane's mother, Estelle, wasn't terminally ill. She was 88 years old, partially paralyzed, and unable to speak after a series of strokes. By Jane's account, she was "humiliated by her helplessness." Estelle communicated her desire to die to Jane by using a cardboard alphabet chart. Together they agreed on using a process called VSED (voluntary stopping of eating and drinking).

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The nursing home staff agreed to their plan. "As the days passed, I watched the hands of the clock from my perch in a corner of my mother's room," Jane writes. "They seemed to have stopped moving. She soon became a curiosity, as staff stood in her doorway to watch the old lady who would not die. [It took 13 days instead of the expected week.] I accused staff of sneaking her ice cubes when my back was turned. I was twitching with impatience. I wanted my mother to hurry up and die, and was ashamed to admit it."

The positive blurbs for the book on Amazon probably shouldn't surprise me. In this day and age, such actions, and having the "courage" to write about them, draw praise. The Boston Globe reports, "Gross writes movingly about the toll it takes on her and other caregivers. . . . [S]he's serious about documenting the often hidden workload borne by middle-aged daughters and sons." The Seattle Times praises Gross as "an incisive critic of our systems and institutions." Commonweal lauds her for bringing up such a difficult topic, writing, "Individuals, families, medical professionals, and our society's institutions have a pressing moral duty to reform our failing systems of care for the fragile old and dying. Jane Gross's excellent book can help us do better on all these fronts."

We can do better on this front, and it shouldn't involve "twitching with impatience" for someone to die.

Marcia Segelstein
Marcia Segelstein

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