Fresh Air: Existential Emptiness At The End Of Life

Listen to Fresh Air today for an insiders view of death and dying from a former critical care nurse who now counsels terminally ill people at the end of their lives. Some of those patients choose to die with an overdose of medications, which is legal in Oregon, Washington and Montana. Massachusetts voters will decide whether to legalize physician-assisted suicide in November.

Judith Schwartz, east coast regional coordinator for the nonprofit Compassion and Choices, tells Terry Gross that the top reason terminally ill patients say they want help dying is not because they’re in excruciating pain. She said people want to die when they can no longer do any of the large and small things they love. For some people that doesn’t matter, she said, but for the people it matters to, it matters a lot, and those patients stare straight into the “existential meaningless” of life.

Other topics in the broad-ranging interview include why inexperienced nurses in hospitals sometimes put terminally ill patients on suicide watch and how people sometimes change their hard fought plans at the very end.

“There are many people for whom death is not the worst thing that could happen to them,” Schwartz said. While others feel differently.

She tells the story of a dying man who, in a discussion about whether to stop eating and drinking, asked whether he would also have to give up his Scotch. “That,” Schwartz said, “should be the last to go.”

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