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Chorus of voices grows stronger for 'death with dignity'

Maintaining control of when and how they die is an important desire for those who wish to avoid burdening loved ones at the end of their lives.

December 18, 2012|Steve Lopez

The bullet that Larry Robert Broman used to kill himself went clean through his head and into the wall.

No one had expected him to do it. Not his ex-wife, who had remained close to him. And not their two grown daughters.

It happened early on the morning of Oct. 21.

"I heard a noise and ran down the hall," said his oldest daughter, Heather O'Hara, who forced her way into the back bedroom of her Riverside home, where she'd been caring for her terminally ill father. "His hands went limp. The gun was in front of the sofa and he was sideways."

Broman, a 65-year-old born-again Christian and former Air Force flight mechanic, had grown increasingly miserable about the indignities he suffered as lung cancer spread through his body. O'Hara suspects he had hidden the 9-millimeter handgun in the folds of the sofa and waited for his moment. A visiting hospice aide, who had stepped into the next room, said Broman's last words were, "Lord, please forgive me."

I've learned a lot this year about that appointment that awaits us all, some of it from personal experience. In February, my father died, and in August I nearly followed. My mortality wake-up call came in a hospital after knee surgery, when I flat-lined because of a heart arrhythmia and was resuscitated by a nurse.

In response to columns about those events, stories have streamed in from people who are running out of time themselves, or enduring the pain of watching loved ones fade. The deaths they face are as different as the lives they've lived, but a steady refrain runs through their emails and letters.

People want more control in the end. They want to be in charge of one last thing.

These people speak a common language, linked by a desire to have lethal, doctor-prescribed medication as a legal option, as do residents of Oregon and Washington. When they can't feed and bathe themselves, when all privacy is lost, when they become a burden to loved ones, they want an exit. They live in fear not of death, but of languishing interminably without purpose or joy.

I've felt privileged to be let into their lives.

The patch job is still faintly visible on the wall of the bedroom where Broman took his life. A company called A-1 Clean the Scene was called in to eliminate the bloodstains.

The agony hasn't waned for his daughters and ex-wife, who wish they had sensed the full depth of his desperation. There's anger, too, along with the guilt. Why couldn't the hospice staff have done a better job of easing his pain? And why aren't there humane options when the suffering has become too great?

"Why couldn't the doctor here have offered … an option saying, 'When you get sick of this, Larry, all you have to do is mix this up and drink it?'" asks Rebecca Beal, Broman's ex-wife. "Part of the horror of all this is thinking of that moment … knowing this was his only way out … when he actually took the gun and had to pull the trigger."

Amy Brackett, Broman's youngest daughter, said that when a pastor visited the house not long before the shooting, he asked her father what his one prayer would be.

"I want to go to heaven, and I want to be with God," her father said. "But I don't want to have to go through this to get there."

Talking about death with dignity is a charged subject. I've heard criticism from people of faith who say life and death should be left in God's hands. But Larry Broman's daughters and ex-wife, all of them Christians, feel differently. They say they've begun advocating on their Facebook pages and elsewhere for better alternatives to prolonged and painful deaths.

O'Hara points out that those who say death should be left in God's hands often take drastic steps to prolong their lives using ventilators or feeding tubes. "They condemn you for taking your life, but they don't condemn you for being artificially kept alive."

At the funeral, the pastor told mourners that Broman's last act was not a selfish one. He was in a burning building, and he jumped.

"God doesn't judge you on your last act on earth, but on how you lived your life," Beal said.

Beal said that Broman's death was particularly hard on her current husband, Sam, a doctor who had grown close to Broman, and has stage four cancer himself. "I don't know what we're facing. I have no idea," a tearful Beal said. "I'm trying to figure it out, but I've learned a lot. I've learned about what I'm not going to go through, and I'm an advocate for people to have a choice at the end."

A house of sorrow

"Recipe for death."

Those were the words in the subject field of the e-mail from Fran Measley.

"Dear Steve, as an 88-year-old caregiver of my husband for many months, I do not want my children going through the same experience with me. Would you send me the name of the concern that sells the recipe for death that you mentioned in your column.... My husband and I agreed that when we are old and infirm, death is a friend."

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