Brittany Maynard died on November 1, 2014
Her legacy was not defined by the manner in which she died, writes her husband, Dan Diaz
Editor’s Note: Dan Diaz was Brittany Maynard’s husband and lives in Alamo, California. He is now a consultant for Compassion & Choices, a national end-of-life care advocacy organization. The views expressed are his own.
A little more than 18 months ago, I held my wife, Brittany Maynard, in my arms as she fell asleep and passed away, peacefully. She did so after consuming aid-in-dying medication, instead of allowing brain cancer to continue imposing its slow and torturous death upon her. This Thursday, a California law will go into effect that will give a terminally ill individual who qualifies the ability to request aid-in-dying medication, letting them also have the option of a similarly gentle passing if it becomes necessary.
The End of Life Option Act in California was inspired by Brittany. I cared for her as she battled a tumor that was creating uncontrollable pain and suffering. For most individuals who are facing their end of life, palliative and hospice care will provide a gentle passing. But there are certain cases when this might only be accomplished with the option that this law offers.
To be clear, medical aid in dying is not widely used – it accounted for less than 0.4% of all deaths in Oregon last year. The End of Life Option Act in California is modeled after the nearly 20-year-old Oregon Death with Dignity Act and has strong protections. New York is among many other states considering similar legislation.
Brittany died on November 1, 2014. Since then, I have received hundreds of emails and letters of support from individuals who shared with me how “courageous” and “heroic” Brittany was for working to pass end-of-life-options legislation before she died. I appreciate that outpouring of kindness, and I’d like to say thank you to everyone who sent emails and letters. Your kind words of support have helped me tremendously as I cope with not having Brittany in my life.
Public sentiment has attached this California law to Brittany’s legacy, and that is an honor indeed. I would, however, like to point out a subtle nuance: Brittany’s true legacy is that she exemplified how a person should live.
Brittany chose to live life on her own terms, even after doctors told her she only had six months left. She allowed her adventurous spirit to guide her through those final months, just as she had done her entire life. And despite the symptoms and discomfort she was experiencing, Brittany focused on spending her time with the family and friends she loved, and traveling to destinations she yearned to see. It is a simple reminder to us all of how we should spend our days, no matter how many of them we think we have left.
To be clear, the goal of terminally ill individuals is to live as long as they possibly can. That goal was true for my wife, Brittany, as well as other terminally ill individuals that I came to know, like Jennifer Glass and Christy O’Donnell, who bravely fought for passage of the California End of Life Option Act, despite knowing they would likely die before the law took effect.
But as each recognized their impending fate, the goal of a terminally ill individual is also to not suffer an agonizing death. I’ve found that goal to be universal: It exists regardless of whether or not a person is supportive of this law.
Brittany’s legacy was not defined by the manner in which she died. Death, after all, will happen to all of us, and there is nothing particularly newsworthy about that. Her legacy is that she provided us with an illustration of how determination, grace and love can make a difference and help so many.
I recently found a quote from the author Kalu Ndukwe Kalu that aptly captures this sentiment:
“The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy.”
During the last year of her life, Brittany did not want to leave our home in California and move to Oregon. She had no intention of becoming the “face of a movement.” My wife simply wanted to know that she could pass away gently, just like the rest of us hope will be the case for us. But she endured those adversities and then decided to speak up about it for the benefit of the rest of us.
I feel a profound sense of pride that beginning June 9, Brittany’s determination means that others in her predicament will no longer have to leave their home like we did. Most people who are dying do not have the resources or time to relocate their family to another state where medical aid in dying is authorized, establish residency there, and find a new team of doctors.
The reality is that with a population of almost 40 million in California, there might be hundreds of terminally ill individuals who find themselves in Brittany’s situation. Thankfully, those individuals will no longer have to be consumed with fear or terrified of how their final days might play out. The End of Life Option Act will allow those terminally ill individuals to take back some control over how they will die from their disease. And in doing so, it will permit them to focus on living, not on the “dying” aspect.
While much of the public will likely remember how Brittany died, those who knew her best will agree that it’s the way Brittany lived that is her true legacy.
Dan Diaz was Brittany Maynard’s husband and lives in Alamo, California. He is now a consultant for Compassion & Choices, a national end-of-life care advocacy organization. The views expressed are his own.