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Gov. Roberts speaks frankly about Oregon's Death With Dignity law

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She shares personal experiences and lessons learned in giving people choices


BARBARA SHERMAN - Former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts autographed copies of her latest book following her talk at a recent Tigard-area AAUW meeting.Former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts candidly discussed the state's Death with Dignity law and her own experiences with people dying at the October meeting of the Tigard branch of American Association of University Women.

She also read excerpts from the second edition of her book, "Death Without Denial/Grief Without Apology: A Guide for Facing Death and Loss," and selling and signing copies afterwards.

"It's a story of love and loss, of courage and caring, of facing the end of life on your terms," Roberts said. "It's a book I felt long before I wrote it."

In the book, she explains how within a few short years, she lost both her parents, her children's father (her first husband) and her beloved husband, Frank Roberts.

"It was a five-year commitment to write it, and I realized at the beginning that the road my book and I traveled had just begun, and it took me on an immeasurable journey," said Roberts, adding that as she spoke to various groups about grief and dying, "I learned from them. I started as an author, and now I am the student.

"I'm not obsessed with death, but I want to bring end-of-life issues out of the closet. We are tied to a cultural bondage of the appropriate way to heal, but grief will take as long as it takes. There is no one right way to grieve, just your way."

According to Roberts, our society tries to avoid using words like dead, death and dying, and the first step is to accept these terms.

"When patients are dying, they need comfort, closeness and dignity – and sometimes pain control," she said. "Patients want to be home, not in a hospital. And music and laughter are important at the end.

"We are asked to grieve privately and quickly, but the art of living and the art of dying are both important. You are free to mourn your loss the way you want… People who are grieving do not need approval from others."

BARBARA SHERMAN - Former Gov. Barbara Roberts (left) chats with Sue Bean at the conclusion of the AAUW meeting in a Durham business park.The title of Chapter Six in her book is "Caring and Caregiving," and Roberts pointed out that "you don't need to be a nurse, a saint or a hero" to be a caregiver. "You just need to know how to ask for help," she said.

The chapter starts out, "Caring for a dying person in the home is a difficult job, and a remarkable process. You are tested physically, psychologically, and emotionally, yet those who participate in this process are permanently and positively touched."

Roberts and her husband Frank had many long, deep conversations during his last weeks of life, and he was concerned about her future and if she would be lonely. When it became clear that he was ready to die (without utilizing the Death With Dignity law), it was her turn to be brave and give him the permission he seemed to need.

Frank loved brown hawks, and Roberts writes in the chapter: "Kneeling on his bed that last early morning, I summoned all my courage and love and said softly, 'It's time to let go, Frank. You can fly like the hawk, float on the air. The whole sky is yours. Be a hawk, Frank. You are free to fly now, my love.'

"I knew Frank heard me and understood. No longer did he need my caregiving… And he let go and soared."

Roberts told the AAUW audience, "On death and dying, silence is not golden. It adds to your sense of isolation and suffering."

One positive change Roberts has seen is a change from somber funerals to memorial services that are celebrations of life.

COURTESY OF BARBARA ROBERTS - Gov. Barbara Roberts said that she needed five years to write this book.Roberts recapped the history of Oregon's Death with Dignity law, recalling that when she was governor and her husband was in the Oregon Senate, the bill was introduced three times and failed three times; finally in 1993 an initiative petition was started to get it on the ballot.

"It reached a crescendo in 1994… As governor, I supported a wide public debate, and as a result, end-of-life care has become better in Oregon. People know they have choices. As of 2014, 1,300 prescriptions have been written, and 850 were used. Getting the prescription doesn't mean you have to use it.

"There is a special place in my heart for the law and the benefits of death with dignity. There is increased use of hospice, and medical schools are focusing more on the end-of-life role."

Roberts pointed out that today, Oregon no longer stands alone. In 2008, Washington adopted the law, followed by Montana in 2009 and Vermont in 2013. By 2015, 20 other states and Washington, D.C., had introduced Death with Dignity laws.

(Roberts added a footnote to her book that in October 2015, California's End of Life Option Act went into effect.)

Roberts explained that people must take the drug themselves; it cannot be administered by someone else; and mostly cancer patients use it.

Roberts has spoken at several end-of-life conferences across the country, participated in book readings nationwide and testified in several state legislative sessions.