Social Question

SmashTheState's avatar

Do people have the power to choose when they die?

Asked by SmashTheState (12817points) July 10th, 2010

My mother recently died after six years with liver cancer. (Liver cancer has a 95% mortality rate within five years, so she was quite fortunate.) For the last two weeks of her life, she was in a hospice, and she was only lucid for the first few days – with one exception. I have a brother, and he hadn’t seen our mother for more than five years. He recently had a child, and I know my mother had been praying that she’d live long enough to see a grandchild. Since I’m asexual, she knew it certainly wouldn’t be emerging from my loins. I convinced my brother to bring his new, week-old daughter to see our mother in the hospice and, to everyone’s surprise, my mother was completely lucid for the duration of his visit. In fact, despite the fact she was dying in terrible pain and doped up with massive amounts of morphine, she had the strength to sit up, make conversation, and hold the baby. She never regained full consciousness after that, and she was dead within a week.

The doctors at the hospice had told us when my mother arrived that, from their experience and her condition, they estimated she had “more than days, but less than months.” After seeing her grandchild, it was as if all the life went out of her and my mother’s condition deteriorated rapidly.

My father and I wanted to be there when she died, so the hospice called us when they knew the end was near. It took me about an hour and a half to get to the hospital by bus; my father arrived much earlier. The instant I arrived in the hospital room, my mother’s breathing began to slow, and she was dead within five minutes. Despite the fact that she was unconscious and thoroughly doped with morphine, it’s as if she waited for me to arrive before she allowed herself to die.

Out of curiosity, while I was organizing the services with the funeral director I asked him about my experience. What he told me is that he’d been doing the job 25 years and that, from his anecdotal observations, my experience was the norm rather than the exception. He related a story about his own father, for example, who had a friend he had wanted at his bedside when he died. As his father lay dying, unconscious, the funeral director said he told his father to hold on, and that his friend was on the way. Again, it was about twenty minutes before his friend arrived and, five minutes after that, his father was dead.

We know from studies that there is no such thing as “the will to live.” Studies in which doctors were asked to rate the “will to live” of their patients showed there was absolutely no correlation between outcome and the doctors’ estimation of the patient’s willingness to fight for life. And yet, it seems as if people have the capacity to decide, within certain ranges, when they wish to take their final breath.

What about you folks? Do you have any similar personal experiences? Do you think people have the capacity to choose when they die, even if they’re unconscious?

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19 Answers

jaytkay's avatar

Anecdotes don’t prove anything, but for what it’s worth:

My paternal grandmother was on the verge, in the hospital, for a week. The family is scattered. All her children & grandchildren came to see her in a couple of days. The last grandchild made it on the seventh day. And she passed away that evening.

My maternal grandmother had a devastating stroke.She fought through months of rehabilitation. She was independent again, driving a car, living alone – and then she had another stroke. She told my aunt, “I’m not going through that again!” And she died within a month.

So I think it’s possible. But you have to be awfully sick to will your own death.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I think there’s much we don’t know about how our brains are driven by our emotions and what you say is absolutely possible.

Kayak8's avatar

I have spent much of my career working with the dying and I agree with the funeral director that it is the rule rather than the exception. I have seen people wait until the right people were present and I have seen people wait until everyone left the room. My friend Jerry waited until his dog was brought in from outside and only then did he let go.

anartist's avatar

Of course they have the power. It goes without saying. Do they have the right is the issue? In some places, yes, in some, no. Germany has right-ti-die laws. So does Oregon in the US. Among other places. However physician-assisted suicide is thoroughly examined when sought. As for the will to check out at the end, as @fundevogel above states, it is more the will to hang on until something necessary is completed.

I very mich believe that my father hung on until he had gotten my mother [a non-driver] to a safe place. They went to visit my brother. He died days later under what was thought to be routine surgery but pancreatic cancer was discovered and then he got a heart attack and died. My mother, too, was very concerned about one of her children and the need to have disastrous choices on the child’s part rectified. Only then did she pass, and quickly, although she had wanted to go for at least a year.

lloydbird's avatar

To answer your question, yes.

marinelife's avatar

I definitely think your experience is typical.

Aster's avatar

It’s true, I believe. The nurse, relying on my husband’s advice, told my father, “you can go now, James.” And he died instantly after barely being alive for two weeks.

fundevogel's avatar

I don’t think people can will themselves to live when they’re bodies aren’t already capable of overcoming the malady, though I do suspect that under the right circumstances a healthy psychological condition will have a positive influence on recovery.

As for if a person can hold on to life for a period of time until they are ready to die…maybe? Obviously this wouldn’t by possible with a lot of terminal conditions but maybe it could happen. But I imagine a good proportion of the instances people report of people dying just in time to say their farewells are just coincidence. If someone is on their death bed and their friends and family are coming to see them before they die it’s well with in the range of a normal time of death for the person to die just after someone arrives to see them off.

It would be more of an anomaly it they were on their death bed and held on for another three months when young Talbot managed to get back from his Peruvian expedition.

jazmina88's avatar

I think it shows are souls being strong enough to fight our physical body. just for hours, days or even weeks or years.

Seaofclouds's avatar

I believe it’s entirely possible for someone to hold out for one thing or another. i’ve seen patients wait for a family memeber to come see them and others wait for someone to tell them that it’s ok to let go.

My grandfather’s doctors told us on the morning of Arpil 13th that he had merely hours left and that we should expect it to happen soon. He was completely unconscious. That day happened to also be my grandmother’s birthday. We all waited by his bedside all day. He didn’t pass until 12:20am on April 14th. Whether it’s true or not, we believe he held on until it wasn’t my grandmother’s birthday anymore.

MaryW's avatar

I entirely believe through experience that an ill person can leave when they wish if they really want to choose. Animals with intellect can decide much that can not be predicted. I also have seen when a person does not want to leave until they are alone after they have seen those they waited to see here. and GA to @jazmina88

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

While I agree that anecdotal evidence is not useful for building a firm understanding of the role of awareness in the process of dying, I agree with @Simone_De_Beauvoir that there is so much we do not know about this topic. It is nearly impossible to do empirical research with people who are moribund (near death).

aprilsimnel's avatar

I don’t know about that, but I believe some people know when their time is coming. Martin Luther King seems to have had an inkling. He made a speech the night before he died that he wasn’t coming to with us to “The Promised Land”.

liminal's avatar

My dear friend had just adopted my now son and was in the beginning process of adopting her foster child, my now daughter, when her 5 year cancer remission came to an end. She ended up on her death bed a year sooner than expected. The details are long but the short end of the story is that it became a race to get the adoption approved by a Judge before my friend died. It would make the transitions of the children to my partner and me, and the journey ahead of us, much smoother.

Before she went into permanent unconsciousness she was still holding out hope that the adoption would be finalized. She went into 3 days of intense Cheyne-Stokes breathing that the doctors reported as a body stress equivalent to running more than one marathon a day. Medical staff and loved ones started saying “It is time for her to let go”. As you probably can guess, she did let go – but only moments after her little girl became her adopted daughter. I do believe she willed herself to wait for that moment. Yes, I think she was that amazing.

perspicacious's avatar

My mother-in-law told me she was ready to die and died the next day; she had brain cancer. The story with my aunt is similar. As a teen, a friend and his father died the same day; the mother said she would not live without them; she died three days later. I’ve seen this over and over throughout life. I don’t know if I would say we have the power to choose when to die, but our will does seem to play a part.

eyeDani's avatar

I think they choose if they want to die soon. i think @perspicacious is completely right.

TooBlue's avatar

This is so depressing :(

anartist's avatar

@TooBlue not depressing at all. This is about people who are terminal anyway, exercising the control to let go or hang on until something happens [relatively quickly, not waiting for a toddler to graduate college].

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