Picking Up the Torch

(The following was originally posted on The Good Death Society Blog.)

I was touched that Lamar recommended me as his successor, and I am deeply grateful for his efforts to make the blog an important part of Final Exit Network. I can only hope to meet Lamar’s editorial standards.

It was suggested that my first post should be an introduction to my somewhat diverse background. I have lived in six states, attended two colleges and three seminaries, been married and divorced twice, am a single dad, became an expert in PTSD after my son returned from Afghanistan, had multiple (and sometimes simultaneous) careers, and been immersed in several spiritual traditions along the way. I’ve had a few brushes with fame, including meeting Paul McCartney as well as athletes, celebrities and dignitaries connected to the 1986 Olympics. It sounds a bit pretentious now, but I was mostly just in the right place at the right time, along for the ride, and taking it all in.

Each of those elements may be parts of blog posts at some point. For now, I would like to expound a bit on the fact that I am a hospice chaplain, partly because that work was influential to me joining FEN.

In early 2016, I attended a community informational session on the medical aid in dying bill in the Minnesota Senate. I was surprised to learn there were no clergy or hospice professionals on the panel. The bill’s co-authors considered those two fields as part of the collective opposition. Two microphones had been set up for people to share their views. I stepped up to a microphone and let everyone know that there were indeed clergy and hospice professionals who support the right to die, if only privately in order to protect their jobs.

The Senate informational session was organized by the Minnesota chapter of Compassion & Choices (C&C), who then asked me to speak on behalf of the bill at a committee hearing. David Breeden, Senior Minister at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, was also asked to speak. That’s when I learned how organized the opposition was, consisting mostly of religious conservatives, advocates for the right to life and disability rights activists. Along with most of the bill’s supporters, I was wearing a yellow C&C t-shirt. The opposition was wearing red t-shirts. There was clearly more red than yellow in the room.

Among those speaking in support of the bill included nurses, doctors, and family members who had witnessed the suffering of their loved ones. The main speaker at the committee hearing was Brittany Maynard’s widower, Dan Diaz. (Brittany Maynard was the woman who had to move from California to Oregon to die under its Death With Dignity Act after being diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer.) The emotions in the room were palpable.

The opposition speakers were convinced that legalizing any kind of right to die would inevitably lead to state-sanctioned executions of the disabled, elderly, or anyone else deemed a burden on society. The bill’s safeguard didn’t seem to matter to those people. Clergy members steadfastly argued that only God should determine when someone dies. It didn’t seem to matter that doctors and nurses had already confirmed our practice of using medical treatment to influence the time and manner of one’s death. Some opposing voices did acknowledge the safeguards, but argued that their parents and others would feel pressured to end their lives rather than be a burden on their families or society.

The bill’s authors withdrew the bill before a vote could be taken, stating for the record that the bill apparently needed some clarifying language. Off the record, it was clear from questions by certain influential committee members that the bill would not survive the hearing.

After the hearing, David Breeden and I joined three other ministers to create Interfaith Clergy for End-of-Life Options as a chapter of C&C Minnesota. The group’s stated mission is to promote understanding and acceptance of diverse spiritual beliefs related to end-of-life decisions. Our first notable success was arranging for Episcopal Bishop Gene Robertson to speak on behalf of medical aid in dying at the Westminster Town Hall Forum, which is broadcast by Minnesota Public Radio.

Another person I met at the Senate informational session was FEN board member Gary Wederspahn. Upon learning that I was also a writer, he asked me to write an article that became the cover story for FEN’s Spring 2016 newsletter. I soon joined FEN’s speakers bureau and was later asked to be on FEN’s board of directors.

All board members must go through exit guide training. I was hesitant to be an exit guide because I thought I might be risking my clergy credentials, but I changed my mind after realizing how spiritual the process is. I am currently an associate guide on track to becoming a senior guide.

Lastly, I serve as a spiritual counselor for all FEN clients and family members as well as for exit guides and other FEN volunteers and staff.

I still support medical aid in dying, but it’s far too restrictive. I am especially proud that FEN now offers a Supplemental Advance Directive for Dementia (SADD), with free legal counsel for anyone whose SADD is challenged.

I will close by echoing Lamar’s invitation for anyone to submit a blog post about any topic related to the right to die. I also welcome article suggestions, but I might encourage you to write the article yourself. Don’t worry if you aren’t confident in your writing. I am also an editor and would be happy to work with you to create a post you are proud to share.

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