Grieving for John
by Rachel MacNair
My first inclination when I thought about writing this post soon after the event was that I better not. It was a private event and my thoughts shouldn’t be broadcast for fear of invading privacy.
But it’s now been publicized in The Washington Post, which is about as public as it gets. And in that article, I’m conscripted into a supporting role I never agreed to. I wasn’t named, but I was part of a group that was implied to be supportive of what happened (visiting Quakers) when I’m actually appalled. So writing this becomes an obligation.
I listened in great consternation as John, over Zoom to my local Quaker Meeting, read the letter explaining to the Meeting his decision to do VSED – basically, starve and dehydrate himself to death, with medical comfort provided. He mentioned a fear of being stuck on a ventilator in ICU when he didn’t want to be. He listed disabilities he had that he didn’t want to live with.
He had been following the organization Compassion and Choices for years – an organization devoted to euthanasia, though of course they use euphemisms. I had never been able to talk him out of that.
We were good friends, fellow Quakers, and had been so since I was a teenager. He was already a long-time member of our Quaker Meeting when I joined in 1972.
I know his kids, and I have complete confidence that the idea that they might get their inheritance quicker or that there might be more of it if he did this probably didn’t even occur to them, certainly not in any way that would come out. No pressure whatsoever on him for that.
But of course not everyone is so lucky.
And he never cited lack of resources as a problem. He was White and male. No one was going to disrespect him for being otherwise.
But of course not everyone is so lucky.
I was one of the Quakers mentioned in the article that went and visited him. I was aghast, but I never said so to him. I knew he was determined, and the only thing I could do if I argued would be to make things worse for a dying man.
I visited him because that’s what one does when a friend is dying. The dying person steers the conversation. John wanted to reminisce mainly, and he asked some questions and chatted like normal. He was tired after about 20 minutes or so, so my son and I left.
But I do need to say in no uncertain terms that I am heartbroken. He was a man who went to prison during World War II for refusing to register for the draft because he wouldn’t kill people. He was a man who didn’t want the murderer of his son (in a senseless shooting spree of four people) to be executed, because he didn’t believe in killing people.
And then he ended his life by killing someone – himself.
First, on the fear of ICU, I do understand not wanting extraordinary life-saving measures taken for a 99-year-old man. But his contention that if he went into assisted living he’d be forced into such measures when he didn’t want them is entirely outside my experience. What would otherwise be medical care when consented to is assault and battery without that consent. And particularly for a man that old, hospital staff wouldn’t be surprised that he wanted to die in peace rather than be put on a ventilator and similar measures.
Yet the disabilities he mentioned having at the time were ones that large numbers of people live with.
He was 99 years old. He had mentioned several years back that he won first place for swimming in the 90-93 age group, which was easily done because he was the only person in it. Quite hale and hearty – as can be seen how long it took him to die without food and water.
But that goes along with his inordinate disdain for living with a disability. There is no bigotry greater than saying that someone is better off dead, and there’s no way to make that bigotry stronger than saying that you yourself would rather be dead than be such a person.
How devastating is this to people living with disabilities? How much does it sabotage their ability to make their case that they want to live, and to be treated with dignity? How much does it add to the pressure from others to have disdain for their own lives?
He was a deeply spiritual man. Had he approached the disabilities as a learning experience, and had more solidarity with other people going through such experiences, he would have had the spiritual resources needed to let it enrich his life.
And it’s even worse than I realized, once I read the article: while one son was supportive and there to help his father with the medical comfort aspect – which I can testify to, I saw it – his other two sons were opposed to it. That’s all the article said. I haven’t spoken to them, but I do know from recent personal experience that grieving a father is hard, no matter how old.
In general, dealing with the grief when the death was a suicide is harder. I don’t know if it was for the other sons, or if they even saw it as a suicide at all.
But I do know that the topic never came up in all the discussion around “choice.” The callousness of not taking the grieving process for loved ones into account scares me.
I couldn’t attend his memorial service (that is, among Quakers, Meeting for Worship with Attention to Memorial). It was blended, both at the Meetinghouse and on Zoom. My son attended on Zoom and said it was beautiful with so many good memories. What I did at the same time was go off by myself and spend the hour with my own good memories of John – there were so many.
But there had already been Friends in the Meeting that had said things indicating they thought what John did was courageous and even used the word noble. If any said that during the service, I would be put in the position of having to either stay silent – and anyone who knows me knows better than that – or to explain parts of what I’ve said above.
One doesn’t do that at a memorial service. It’s just plain wrong to start an argument on such an occasion. And my son confirmed that this problem did in fact come up, and I would have been in that impossible situation. So I was deprived of the proper send-off for a friend surrounded by other friends.
Once again, using death as a problem-solver is also drafting people to support death. The alternative is to refuse cooperation, and face the kind of hostility that noncooperation with killing often brings.
John, I remain so very fond of you. You did so much good in the world. May all that good through 99 years be what you are remembered for. The story of your death is so very much not the story of your life.
For an example of an individual case applied to someone with disabilities, see:
For more on this topic, see: ]
Figuring out Euthanasia: What Does it Really Mean?