The Choice of Life or Death

By: Erika Tallan
By: Erika Tallan
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Doctor assisted suicide, death by choice or dignified death, whatever you chose to call it, it's an issue many are fighting for -- the freedom to choose when and how you die.

It emerges as the most controversial cultural issue in a recent Gallup Poll. Americans are divided 45% to 48% over whether it is morally acceptable or morally wrong.

One Lincoln couple made that choice.

"It's going to be a process, but I get it and I am so ok with it and I am happy they are together," said Kim Miller, the daughter of Carol and Ray Miller.

It's hard to imagine what it must feel like to lose a parent.
Imagine the heartbreak of losing both your parents at the same time because they took their own lives.
To help you understand why the family is so ok with it, you first have to know the great love story of Ray and Carol miller.

The way their son and daughter tell it, Ray and Carol were made for each other. The two dated in high school, then met up a few years later on the streets of Denver one day.

"He actually proposed three times, she turned him down three times," said Kim.
"And I love the story because one day my mom just announced, 'Oh did you hear? Ray and I are getting married. Not asking just announcing, that's my mom," Kim added.

The two tied the knot, raised four children together and hardly left the others side for 56 years.
That's why it didn't surprise their family when they took their lives together.

"They loved their independence. They loved this house here," said the couple's son Drew Miller.
"They were just very set they did not want to go to a nursing home, they wanted to go out on their own terms," he said.

78-year-old Ray and Carol took their final journey together February 22, 2012.
Kim found her parents sitting in their car, in the garage, with the car running.
A note in her mother's cursive said goodbye.

Kim recalls the note...

"We love you all very much, it was our time to go, we didn't want to be a burden, sorry for the mess, We love you all dearly. And i'll be seeing you."

An open house, commemorating the couple, shows their love reached beyond the other.
They created a lasting legacy in Lincoln's community -- the University of Nebraska- Lincoln ambassador swing choir, Scarlet and Cream Singers.
The group was Rays passion but it was clear Carol was the true love of his life.

"He spoke of her almost like a teenager and they are falling in love for the first time," remembers former Scarlet and Cream singer, Julie Enersen.
"You sort of roll your eyes but then you realize its coming from a couple who have been together for more than 50 years, it's so sweet. I absolutely could not imagine them not being together," said Enersen.

A crescendo of health problems plagued the last years of their life.
Carol struggled with chronic lung disease.
Ray, a diabetic was in and out of the hospital after suffering a stroke.

"We were close to having amputations off and on for years," said Kim.

Ray hinted to family and friends, he wanted to go on his own time, and Carol wanted to go with him.

"He said, I don't want to go on living this way. And he said they had a plan," Enersen said. She and Ray went out to lunch a few weeks before he and his wife took their lives.

"He started getting all choked up as he said goodbye. And he said, 'I love you kiddo'. And I said, 'I love you too Ray'. When I got home, I told my husband, 'I have a feeling Ray was saying goodbye'. And it turned out he was," Enersen said holding back tears.

Because it is so rare, there are no statistics for how many couples die in suicide pacts.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Americans over 65 are more likely to die by suicide than younger people.
Seniors have a suicide rate of 14 out of 100,000 compared to 11 out of 100,000 in the general population.
Sometimes it's done out of depression and illness. For others it's an act of love and devotion - a let's die together pact.

"Love drives us to do many things. When one is defining one's world around a singular relationship, the loss of that relationship could be a driving factor toward decisions of great finality," said Psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Coffman.

Having the choice to die on your own terms has become a hotly debated issue.

The majority of states criminalize assisted suicide including Nebraska.
Only Oregon, Washington and Montana permit doctor assisted suicide, or as Oregon law describes it -- death with dignity.

Nebraska state senators have debated legalizing assisted suicide 3 times in the unicameral since 1996.
Each attempt failed.

"There are a lot of issues involved there and one is respect for life and life is precious," said Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood.

"I don't think it's for us to decide I think it's for a higher power," said Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning.

Not only is it a legal matter, medical professionals feel ethically opposed.

"The old testament has very simple words. Thou shalt not kill," said Dr. Dale Michels MD of geriatric medicine and family practice in Lincoln.

"I don't think that there is any patient that I have ever seen in 37.5 years of practice that was so destitute, that was so unable for us to take care of them in any way," said Dr. Michels.
"We have good medications that control pain that can take care of pain, that can make it very tolerable, regardless of how severe the pain is," Michels said.

The Miller family would like to see that change.

"I am angry seriously. At our society for making it so difficult and ugly in the way that they had to do it," Kim Miller said.
"They should have been able to have the choice of laying side by side in bed, [taking] a pill, family gathered around to go peacefully, to pass peacefully together. And it's for those reasons that I am heartbroken and angry," she said.

"We're in a free country and people should be able to do what they want in their lives and that was their belief as well," said Drew Miller.

Ray and Carol's family only have one regret.

"My children and I wanted to see them one last time. Because of carbon monoxide poisoning and what it does to the skin immediately, we weren't able to again," said Kim.
"That was hard."


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