My parents both died slow deaths. My father spent the last three months of his life in hospital, of which the last month was in intensive care on ventilator support. He had been rendered immobile, and when the ventilator tube and food pipe went in, there was absolutely no way in which he could communicate to us during the brief times we were allowed to meet him.
My mother’s was a different story, but on a shorter time scale. She spent her last month in hospital, with the last ten days in intensive care and on ventilator, again what I think was fairly painful existence for her, living in a fairly isolated and airconditioned room, not being able to communicate with anyone, with all sorts of tubes and measuring devices stuck all over the body.
In hindsight, I regret my decision to allow them to be put on ventilator. I feel guilty for having extended their lives in a way which was both painful to them and where there was little meaning, for they lived cut off, and unable to communicate (and in both cases, had I thought rationally, I would’ve known that there was little chance the time on ventilator would allow them to recover). The only upside to this was that it gave me time to prepare. That it gave me time to prepare for their impending passing,
People who attended either of my parents’ funerals might have been surprised, a bit shocked even, to see that I was quite composed and in control of things. I wouldn’t be wrong if a number of them thought I was a heartless emotionless wretch. The reason I behaved thus was because it was only an incremental change as far as my mental preparedness was concerned. Till the day prior to both my parents’ deaths, I knew that the chances that they would recover and get back home was minimal. Delta. Epsilon. The death, normally a “discrete event” had only pushed this chance to zero, not a big change in probability.
I was thinking about all this two nights back when my grandfather-in-law passed away, once again after a prolonged illness (he refused to be admitted to hospital or be put on life support so in a way he was spared of time on ventilator), but his condition had deteriorated steadily enough for us to know that he would be gone soon. Several family members reacted quite badly, but several others were quite brave and acted bravely. The slow death was the reason for this, I thought.
There are too many factors that affect death, and no one can choose either the time or mode or pace of dying, but I have been thinking if slow deaths are better than sudden deaths or vice versa. The upside of a sudden death is that there is little suffering on the part of the dyer, but the discrete nature of the change (probability that the person would be no more the next day would jump suddenly from close to zero to one) would imply a huge shock for family members and friends, which they would take considerable time and effort to come out of.
A slow death, on the other hand, is extremely painful for the dyer, while it gives time to the family members to come to terms with the reality. Here, too, of course there is usually one big discrete step involved (like that Monday night when in the matter of less than an hour, my mother went from happily chatting with me to gasping for breath so uncontrollably that they had to immediately wheel her to intensive care and a ventilator; or that Thursday morning when my father suddenly realized he had lost all the power in his legs and couldn’t stand on his own), so it is more like a time-shifting of pain (for relatives/friends) rather than the pain being amortized over a number of days.
Once again, there are no clear answers to this question about which mode of death is better, but ever since I saw my father spend his last three months in hospital I’ve believed that sudden deaths are superior. I’ve found myself reacting to other people’s sudden deaths saying “good for them they went without suffering”. Again, no one really has control about how or when they’ll die. It’s only a question about what to hope for in life.