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June 7, 2018 Brigitte Ganger

Organ Donation

Giving life at the time of death

Organ Donation
Making tough calls is part of making final arrangements when a death has occurred. There's no right or wrong decision when it comes to organ donation, but giving saves lives. (Shutterstock)

My mother gave me decision-making power over all health-related matters in the final few days of her life. Once she lost consciousness, I used this power to ensure she got steady doses of morphine. Her pain management was my highest priority, until she died. And then I had to make one of the most difficult decisions of my life.

As a cancer patient, the hospice nurses said, the only part of her body that could be donated was her corneas.

With some end-of-life-requests, my mother was very clear: have a bagpiper play at the funeral, use "My Girl" by The Temptations in her memorial slideshow, and let her die with dignity. But she left no instructions for her organs. I was torn between the emotional desire to keep her body intact, and the moral duty I felt I had to help others. Through her eyes, someone could see the world.

How to make the call

Deciding to donate organs is a complicated decision for any family left without written instructions. For the person making the call, the situation can be extremely distressing. 

There should be no pressure, one way or the other. Years down the road, your decision will not seem as much of a big deal as it does immediately following death—no matter what your course of action is. 

As the decision-maker, you should weigh the emotional needs of your family against what you believe your deceased loved one would have wanted. Otherwise, consider the following as you work through this decision on behalf of your loved one:

  • While 69–75% of people express willingness to donate their organs, 50% of families decline to do so on behalf of their deceased relatives, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. It is more difficult to make this decision for someone you love. But if you are considering donation, your loved one would probably support your choice. 

  • Most organ donation waitlists are months or even years long. Many folks die while waiting for transplants. By donating organs, your loved one can live on in another. Their gift could give sight, mobility or longevity to someone. Though you and your family are in the thick of grief's pain, your generosity could help other families avoid the same pain. 

  • Not donating is just as valid a choice as donating. This is such a personal decision, and there's no need to put extra pressure on it. Do what feels right for you, and be confident in that decision. 

What if my family wants an open casket viewing?

It's a myth that an open casket service conflicts with organ donation. Once organs are collected, your loved one will be made presentable so that they are able to be viewed by family and friends. 

A final thought

Ultimately, if this decision is going to cause more anguish than it does joy, go with your gut. Making the choice to donate mom's corneas was a difficult one. But someone is able to see the world because of her gift, and it keeps her memory alive. Don't be afraid to make the 'wrong' choice—your gut will tell you what's right. Once you have made your decision, all you can do is move forward.

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