As a professional designer, Elaine Fong has worked with many brands. But, she asked at this TEDx San Francisco talk in October, “What happens when the experience you’ve been asked to design is death, and the face behind that brand is your very own mother?”
The question presented itself to Fong and her family after her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and decided to forego her remaining months of life, as was her right under Washington state’s Death With Dignity Act. The law allows patients with less than six months to live to end their lives by taking a lethal dose of medication.
The 21-minute presentation above encompasses all the aching drama and emotional devastation you might find in such a situation, including a doctor who won’t sign off on her mother’s request and her mom’s description of what it’s like to suffer from stage 4 cancer: “My bones are on fire and everywhere under my skin is burning, and every time I move it just makes it worse.”
Yet, there are beautiful and even celebratory moments, too. Because her mother was able to choose the time and place of her death, the family was able to help her experience her last days exactly as she wished.
“She was so happy,” Fong says of her mom’s mood during a dinner party the night before her death. “She was glowing the whole night.”
The next day, her mom took a cupful of medication, “with two hands, and pounded it like a shot of whiskey. She looked at my dad and smiled, closed her eyes, and in 45 minutes, she was gone.”
This is one of a very few TED talks we have published this year. I saw it live, surrounded by weeping audience members, and it was not hard to imagine many thinking seriously about Fong’s challenge:
“If you could design your own death, what would you want the experience to be like, and how would you want it to feel?”
According to annual reports compiled by Washington’s department of health, the number of state residents who have opted to take lethal medication under the Death With Dignity Act has risen from 36 in 2009 to 192 in 2016.
How would you design your own death?