The following is an essay by Marc Newhouse on his mother’s use of VSED. Marc Newhouse is a former cellist, nurse, and English teacher. He is now a book author who blogs at Life, Death and Iguanas.
In April of 2010, my mother made a hard, but unquestionably
She was 89, frail, almost blind, and thought she might have
The idea of a slow, relentless deterioration—especially in a
nursing home—was intolerable to her. A fine poet, she had combined wit with
reason all of her life.
She had also supported physician-assisted death for years.
“If my doctor cannot legally euthanize me, as I would much prefer him or her to
do, I authorize the suspension of all fluids and nourishment until I reach my
end,” she wrote in her health directive, decades before in the 80’s. And she named
me her health agent.
So there we were, she and I and my niece, in April of 2010,
as the doctor pronounced the sentence. Or rather, watched as I did.
“We’re wondering if you might be starting Alzheimer’s,” I
said, and recounted the stories of the confusion, the agitation, the odd
behavior that the family had seen.
“We have an agreement,” she snapped, fixing me with her blue
We did. I would do anything to keep her from years of
suffering in a nursing home.
The problem was what. A noose? Stop all the meds? What was
the best way to achieve a good death?
One alternative emerged—helium. It’s legal, it’s lethal,
it’s virtually untraceable. So we three brothers had a plan: we would be there
as my mother took the bag, placed it over her head, and—with her own
hands—started the flow of helium that would end her life in seconds.
“That’s assisted suicide,” said my oldest brother, a
prize-winning journalist, “and whatever it is morally, it’s probably illegal.”
Later—he wrote an email. “I cannot and will not lie in a
court of law.”
Was it a threat?
We took it as one. And so the family erupted in rancorous
battle, and the presumed-Alzheimer’s continued.
Finally, we saw that there was only one alternative—one way
for my mother to sidestep the nursing home and achieve a good end.
VSED. That’s voluntarily stopping eating and drinking.
Which, initially, I thought cruel. I had been a nurse for a
decade, and the traditional wisdom is that a death by dehydration is agonizing.
I did the research—there were reports that it had been done,
and that it was not as uncomfortable as I had assumed.
It took a few days of scrambling, but at last we found a
doctor who would support my mother’s decision. The doctor handed me a box of
Kleenex as my mother matter-of-factly said, “I know that I might have a few
more years, that this could be depression and not Alzheimer’s. But so what? I’d
still be blind, not able to move, not able to read or write. Most of my old
friends are gone, and my younger ones are busy.”
The doctor wrote a consult for hospice—they came immediately
that day, and proved to be the best team of health professionals I have ever
“Has anyone ever done this before,” I asked the nurse, on
the fifth day of the fast. “Have you ever seen this?”
“No,” she said. “Someone essentially healthy, without an
underlying disease condition like cancer, who just decides to stop eating and
drinking—no, I’ve never seen it.”
I had read that the body might produce endorphins after the
third day of the fast. I had also read that the sensation of thirst and hunger
fade and perhaps disappear after the third or fourth day.
My mother disputed that. But she also said, “it hasn’t been
too bad,” when someone asked her what it was like, to be five days without food
The last week of her life had a serenity and depth that
affected everybody—even the man who came to pick up her corpse; he heard the
story, shook his head, and said, “that’s the way I want to go.”
She said farewell to her friends, she resolved three
unfinished pieces of business, and then, on the eighth day of her fast, she
fell into a coma.
And died three days later.
Death changes us all. And a mother’s death has a special
“You’re the best writer in the family,” she had once said to
me. And so, when the ax fell and I lost my job, I did what the family
Mostly, I thought about the life she had lived, and the
lives she had left.
She had always stirred around, been active in the community,
given more than she had taken. And so she would want me to tell you—there’s a
comfortable, legal, morally-acceptable way to die.
And no, you don’t have to suffer the indignity of a nursing
home. You can do it as I did it: at home, with your family and pets beside you,
at the time of your choosing.
You can have a great death.