I guess the real answer lies not only with the dying, but as well with those who will live on after the person’s death. What if I were to change the question from “When is it acceptable for someone to die?” to ‘When is it acceptable for someone you love to die?” Does your answer now change? All of a sudden, no matter how much pain your loved one is in, although you want their pain to stop, you still don't want them to die. It seems perverse to even have to make that kind of judgment or choice. "I want my mom to die, so her suffering will cease." Why did she have to suffer in the first place? I would not want her to die if she were healthy. My husband's mother died at 102. You may think, “Hey, sure, it was about time - she lived a long life.” For my husband, however, his relationship with his mom was the longest one he has ever had.
In my many years as a grief counsellor, working on the oncology and palliative care wards of four major Montreal hospitals, at the bedsides of the dying, and as a life-long griever myself, I can honestly say that there is never a good time for someone you love to be permanently taken away from you. You may believe in an afterlife or reincarnation, or the spirit world, but in the physically-tangible here and now, the longing to hear and see and touch the person you love, who has died, is gut-wrenchingly palpable, and their absence can be physically and emotionally painful to those left behind.
I have been through it with my dad, when I was 16, and with my mom when I was 34, and now my best friend, my chosen sister, my longest life relationship, will cease to exist in the not-too-distant future.We humans are the only animal that has an understanding of our own mortality. We witness loved ones close to us, and strangers around our earth, dying every day. We know beyond a doubt, that one day, we too will die, but we hope it is not today, because today is not a good time for us to die. So we get up in the morning, work, play, dream, plan, and keep moving ever forward towards the unknown future. We are resilient and adaptable and hopeful. We are able to experience more than one emotion at a time, and in the face of despair, we search relentlessly for happiness, joy, love, purpose and acceptance. We come together in difficult and fearful times, and we separate again when we feel more confident and safe. We all love, and therefore, we all grieve, collectively and separately.
So my beloved friend is dying, and there is nothing I, or anyone else can do to stop that trajectory. It is not fair. It is cruel and out of the order of nature for her elderly parents to have to witness the death of their child. It is too soon for her two young-adult children to have to lose their mother. It is inconvenient to the egos of her oncologists to have to admit defeat. It is an affront for me to lose the one person left in my life who holds the memories of my history. Death is not fair. Death is impersonal, with no consideration as to age, gender, geography, financial status, education, etc. Death is extremely personal, and may shatter everything we once believed and trusted in, until everything around us, including ourselves, once familiar, is now unrecognizable.
When someone we love dies, it is not only about the person her/him self, but about all they represent to us. Each of us grieves for that same person for many different reasons. Each of our reasons is valid and understandable. We come together united in our grief about the one special person who meant so many different things. Edna St. Vincent Millay expressed this eloquently when she wrote:
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.
So, when is it a good time to die? The answer is subjective and personal and answered by both the dying and by the living. That's just this life-long griever’s opinion.