Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking

Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking (VSED) is arguably a natural way to end a life. As the organs of the body shut down and eating becomes challenging, the person facing their end-of-life may prefer to collaborate with the dying process by abstaining from food and water. Loved ones insisting on nutrition and hydration, sometimes by tube feeding and IV lines, may cause more physical pain, as life is prolonged unnaturally.

The ability of modern medicine to keep us alive as we grow older has changed how people die. Not long ago, it was common for a person to live in good health, then die relatively suddenly. Nowadays, any disease is often cured and the patient lives, but with a slightly decreased quality of life. As this process continues, along with the natural decline in our faculties and functions as we age, quality of life continually diminishes. Modern medicine, intent on saving life, may prolong one that has become burdensome.

Here in Canada, we can choose Medical Assistance in Dying. If we meet the established criteria, a health practitioner can administer a lethal injection to hasten our death. For some conditions, this brings relief from the prospect of an unbearable and prolonged death process. For others, it is yet another way to medicalize death, rather than collaborate with the natural processes of life. Not consenting to medical treatment is always a choice we can make, but all too often the medical system encourages treatment, and we are not made aware of how much our quality of life will diminish. Medical practitioners are trained to keep people alive and usually not skilled in facilitating the process of death. As a death phobic culture, we often put pressure on health practitioners to try yet another treatment.   

VSED is a conscious decision made by a determined and well-informed individual which requires considerable support. The practice is often mistaken for fasting to death. However, fasting can last many weeks, whereas stopping all fluids and food usually brings death within 14 days. Some people express a sense of peace that they can “stop fighting”, and describe feelings of euphoria or pleasant light-headedness. Researchers believe that once a body becomes even mildly dehydrated, the brain releases endorphins which act as natural opioids.

Typically, during the first few days, people remain active but become weak, fatigued and increasingly sleepy. Feebleness sets in, and dizziness may occur suddenly. Mental alertness is replaced by longer and longer periods of sleep, and the person may lose consciousness. Eventually the breathing becomes shallower and more irregular, then ceases. A knowledgeable health practitioner can usually manage any discomfort with medications. Proper oral care on a regular schedule can ease the symptoms of dry mouth.

Although an age-old practice, VSED is not well known as a way to hasten death. In a culture that values ease and efficiency, we are not educated on the benefits of choosing to slow down and consciously participate in the process of death. May we have a rich and satisfying life and grow to a ripe old age. When the time is right, may we approach death with courage, aware of the choices we have to withhold medical treatment and the ways to hasten death. Let our choices reflect our values, even when these do not align with those of our culture.

Written by Margaret Verschuur