When does life really end?

When does life really end, or actually begin for that matter?

So many people have deeply rooted notions based on guttural feelings or ideologies of what they think they personally would do, especially for the question of when life begins. They may support pro-life or pro-choice stances so adamantly that every single political voting decision they make is based solely on this one issue.

The reality is that most of us have likely experienced a friend or family member who was confronted with an unwanted pregnancy. Perhaps the situation caused us to alter our own perception of what is right and wrong, or maybe it served to solidify our existing ideology. We might have offered them guidance with their decision, lobbied to present what we felt was the best option, or even remained neutral or silent.

It is difficult to ignore your own moral compass in situations like these. At the end of the day, we all have to do what we can to stand up for what we believe in. The beginning of life is so magical and carries with it so much profound promise and expectation. It is a gift for certain, and gifts must not be taken for granted.

The other side of the coin is a totally different situation. Our best hope is that fate or God will intervene when life is at the end. We all wish for a fast and painless death. Closing our eyes and drifting off to an endless sleep on a warm summer day, after a long, productive life, filled with happiness and accomplishment. Escaping silently away, like a thief in the night.

We fail to consider how our loss will impact others. No chance to say goodbye. No time or means to make amends. No warning or foresight.

Yet, we struggle immensely when someone we love is stricken with a fatal diagnosis, given a concrete life expectancy. With mounting urgency, we count off the days. Somehow, we put our own fear aside and persevere. We hold their hand like we will never let go, and listen so intently to all of their stories.

In the beginning, they speak so eloquently – mystical words filled with logic and insight. Time passes, the sand slips through the hourglass; we cannot stop it no matter how reverently we pray, bargain and plead. In the end, it is just fragments of lucidity.

We hold onto every moment, learn to treasure each word spoken. The seconds tick by in slow motion, like long, lazy afternoons. But all too sudden, autumn arrives. It is time to say the final goodbye.

Sudden accidents on the other hand, rob us of that long goodbye. We are left reeling, like a runaway kite, whipping out of control and just beyond our reach. Panic ensues – regret for all the unspoken words we should have said and remorse for all the half truths we blurted out instead.

But the most tragic end of all is the end that itself is not concrete. The most common circumstance is irreversible and profound brain damage.

We hear about it all the time. In the news the bits of pieces of their stories haunt us. The young girl declared brain-dead after a tonsillectomy gone terribly wrong. The pregnant mother who died suddenly from an aneurism, kept alive against her family’s wishes to protect her unborn child.

Mothers and fathers have to face the question every day. Is it time to let go?

Experts say after the brain has died that the patient is legally dead as well. Yet, unscrupulous lawyers work tirelessly to convince grief-stricken parents that there may still be a chance. A chance at a life that is worth living.

We all have preconceived notions, beliefs on what we would do in this situation. Many of us have living wills that mandate what we would want to happen (to ourselves personally) in the event we endure a traumatic brain injury or end up in a persistent vegetative state.

But when we are placed in the situation of making this decision for our child, it is an entirely different story. I know, I’ve been there. I’ve lived through the absolute horror of having to make a decision in the best interest of my child. We listened intently to the neurologists and the nurses explaining that our daughter had suffered more dramatic death of brain cells in such a short duration than they had ever seen, ensuring us that complete brain death was inevitable.

We watched in stoned silence as our beautiful and vibrant daughter began to wither away in front of our eyes. We prayed, we begged, we bargained. I would have stolen or broken any law of the land, if I had thought it might make a difference. We sat stoically by her side, unable to communicate because she was in so many ways already gone.

We said what we needed to say. Not words that had to be spoken, mind you. She knew already. She knew how loved she was. She lived an amazing life. She was an inspiration to so many, and a source of light and love that could never really be extinguished.

It is easy to sit and judge when you have not walked this path. The reality is that once all possibility of ever living a meaningful life has passed, once you will never open your eyes again, never share a smile, never take a step, never utter a word, it is time to say goodbye.