August 22

Jerald Winakur’s Aug. 18 op-ed, “When a friend asks to die,” and WAMU-FM host Diane Rehm’s account for NPR of the death of her husband have renewed the conversation over living with meaning.

In my decades of treating people with the worst imaginable chronic pain, patients often told me they would rather die than live with their pain. Those experiences taught me that living in unrelieved pain is living without meaning or hope.

Between 2005 and 2009, emergency department admissions for suicide attempts using narcotic drugs (i.e., opioids) rose 61 percent in women, nearly doubled among men age 35 to 49 and nearly tripled among men older than 50. Many of these people certainly were trying to escape pain.

The sad stories behind these statistics should generate compassion and a commitment to finding more effective means of managing pain for those near death or living lives altered by pain. Then perhaps we can replace the cry “Please help me die” with “Thank you for helping me live a life with meaning.”

Lynn Webster, Salt Lake City

The writer, a physician, is a vice president at PRA Health Sciences, a clinical research company, and the immediate past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine.