Dear Margo: Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

Margo Howard’s advice

Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

Dear Margo: I live in Massachusetts, where a Death With Dignity initiative was defeated on the Nov. 6th ballot. Do you think physician aid in dying is really necessary when palliative care is available to patients who have terminal illnesses? How do you feel about allowing patient choice at the end of life? Have you had any personal experiences with a dying relative or friend? Help me sort through this stuff! — Undecided

Dear Un: I, too, live in Massachusetts, and both my physician husband and I voted for the measure. I am pro-palliative care, but I also know that some illnesses do not respond to opioids. My mother, for example, had multiple myeloma, and no drug totally addresses bone pain. She said more than once that if she were able, she would bring down the curtain. I, myself, have a little list of illnesses that I would not want to see through to their natural conclusion. When life is no longer life, when there is little function, great pain and no pleasure, what is served by “letting nature take its course”? I have an aunt, now 95, who has had Alzheimer’s since the early ’90s. One can only imagine what the days are like for her and her family.

To answer your question, I think physician aid in dying would be a wonderful gift to suffering patients. Many of the older docs are steeped in Hippocrates’ “first do no harm,” but my hope is that the younger ones understand that oath to mean “let no one for whom life is a punishment suffer.” Theatrical merit aside, I very much agree with the title of the play, “Whose Life Is It Anyway?”

The states that have approved physician-assisted dying have shown no abuses and rather low rates of people requesting help. An interesting side note is the emotional comfort of such a law being in place. Many patients secure the means but do not use them.

If the religious lobby succeeds in blocking this initiative, people need not feel helpless. There’s a wonderful group of dedicated people who have made common cause with “Compassion and Choices.” They are at They offer local phone numbers and provide, well, choices. Often it is guidance to hospice. I hope I have answered your question. — Margo, compassionately

Oddball Showoffs

Dear Margo: My son “Ben” and his wife, “Kay,” love being the center of attention. This has caused many scenes. My other son’s wife, “Carol,” lost her mother last year. After the funeral, family members gathered at our house. Carol spoke with everyone but soon needed privacy. As she was leaving, Kay demanded she stay. Ben then announced that Kay was pregnant. Carol gave congratulations, and then she and my other son quickly left.

My husband took Ben aside and explained that it was inappropriate to make their announcement just then. Ben argued that it was convenient since everyone was together. Since then, Ben has called us for money, but he has excluded us from everything. We only found out about the birth because Kay’s mother kindly sent photos.

Now they’ve sent an email saying they want no contact. Kay wrote that we are an embarrassment and our values are not in sync with theirs. My husband wants to sue for visitation. I don’t want to be aggressive, but it seems the alternative is to just give up. How do we resolve this? — “Embarrassment”

Dear Em: Nice touch that Ben would ask for money and then inform you that they want no further contact. That pair of showboats sound seriously off base, not to mention mean. I doubt that you can repair things with them, given the way they think, but depending on the state you live in, you may be able to sue for grandparents rights. You can research this on the Internet. — Margo, appallingly

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Dear Margo is written by Margo Howard, Ann Landers’ daughter. All letters must be sent via the online form at Due to a high volume of e-mail, not all letters will be answered.


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80 comments so far.

  1. avatar D C says:

    Dear Margo — so sorry for your loss.  For those of us who grew up with her indirect guidance, it is a shared loss to be sure. 

  2. avatar Frau Quink says:

    Dear Margo – My heartfelt condolences………

  3. avatar Frau Quink says:

    Concerning Ltr. # 2:

    Save your money for children in your neighborhood elementary school who would love to have you as a substitute grand parent. They will appreciate you very much. What good will it do if you force visitation rights? It might make a bad situation even worse……

    • avatar Messy ONE says:

      The son and daughter-in-law are acting like a couple of self-centered jerks. Begging for money and then pouting like a kid that doesn’t want to share a toy only prove their immaturity. They won’t behave like grownups until they figure it out for themselves.

      In this case, nothing would be gained from fighting this out in court, except to give “Ben” and his wife something more to whine about. No one can make an adult to anything they don’t want to do, and this cuts both ways. The LW can’t “make” her son act like a grownup, but she CAN make it clear that she won’t tolerate being treated badly by him.

  4. avatar sdpooh says:

    To Margo.  I just read of your aunt’s passing.  (for the younger crowd, her aunt was “Dear Abby”).  My condolences to you, your cousins and the entire family.  Both ladies brought good sensible solutions to generations of readers and I know that you and your cousin will continue what your dear mothers started.   

  5. avatar Jan Hall says:

    All my family lives in Holland, where euthanasia is allowed and accepted. A few months ago, an old (mid 90’s) distant relative chose to die. She had many medical problems, then broke her hip, and she decided she’d had enough. If I remember correctly, two doctors, including her family physician, had to independently agree that she met the criteria for euthanasia, then there was a short waiting period, after which she died peacefully in the presence of her family.

    My mother died in Holland from Alzheimer’s, but since we had never discussed how she wanted to die, I would never have suggested it to the doctor, nor would he have done it.

    I want to be able to make that same decision, not with an overdose of pills, which I might not keep down, not with a bullet to my head, which might make the situation worse, but with an injection. I always said I’d take myself to the vet and be euthanized the way my cats were.


    Margo – your aunt was a very special woman, she’ll be missed by many of us, and some of her columns and advice will live forever. My condolences to you and your family.

  6. avatar R Scott says:

    Margo, I agree with everything you said regarding the first letter. Nicely stated.

    My condolences on the loss of your aunt. She and your mother will be fondly remembered. They are American Icons.


  7. avatar R Scott says:

    LW2 – Either you managed to raise a real whack job or there’s more to the story. I actually think it’s a little of both.

  8. avatar Anais P says:

    Dear Margo: So sorry to hear about your aunt’s passing. Now that both she and your mother are gone, it is truly the end of an era. May you and your cousin continue their legacies.

  9. avatar Humama says:

    Dear Margo,
    Please accept my condolences on the passing of your beloved aunt. She and your mother unleashed their unique talents on the world and made it more compassionate and understanding about a myriad of social issues. I know these special ladies now look down upon you and your cousins with pride as you carry into a new millennium with advice as only you can dispense it. Bless you all.

  10. avatar JCF4612 says:

    Margo — Please add my condolences on the passing of your aunt, the original Dear Abby. I grew up reading Ann Landers in the morning Indianapolis Star and Dear Abby in the afternoon Indianapolis Times. My mother was choosy about what I read, but never objected to those spicy slices of life.

  11. avatar Visser1 says:

    When an illness robs you of all the things you enjoy, you are no longer living you are just alive. My work involves palliative treatments for many terminally ill patients. I think that any treatment that improves a persons quality of life is great, provided they have the desire to pursue it. When overzealous family cannot let someone go they prolong suffering. Endless treatments to prolong a painful life are pointless, and while they may help family cope with feeling of futility they seldom help the patient. As many others have already stated some diseases don’t respond to pain medication and some people have terrible reactions to it. Death with dignity and without pain shouldn’t be controversial, it should be a right.

  12. avatar Janet66 says:

    Margo – sincere condolences. Your aunt was a true treasure.

  13. avatar Janet66 says:


    Unfortunately, I know people like the LW’s son and wife. There’s a word for their affliction: NARCISSISM.
    Totally inappropriate and insenstive to announce a pregnancy at a funeral. As for being cut off from your new grandchild, I really wish people who are not lawyers would refrain from broadcasting bad advice. If you want access, get an appointment with a good lawyer specialized in family law and find out what your chances are of winning in Court. The grounds for access will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but generally speaking, it’s about the best interests of the child, not whether you already have a bond established unlesss that’s how the Court in a particular jurisdiction interprets “best interests.”

     If you don’t think your son is likely to come around in the next year or two – or ever – you really have nothing – but money – to lose.   I’d spend the $300 for a legal consultation and find out what your options are, think about things and then make your decision.

  14. avatar Lym BO says:

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful to declare a holiday on your mom & aunt’s birthday?! They truly touched so many lives. Like many have said above, their responses to letters were solid truth with many lessons about life for many of us. I began to read Dear Abby daily when I was 9 or 10 (Ann Landers wasn’t carried in our little paper),. I doubt I ever missed a column until I went to college. You can bet I picked it back up when I got my own place & paper. :)
    Deepest condolences to the whole Friedman clan!

  15. avatar Lym BO says:

    I’ve read their bio before, but I never noticed that one twin was Pauline Esther & the other Esther Pauline. I also never knew that She went by the pen name “Abigail,” after the Old Testament prophetess from the Book of Samuel: Then David said to Abigail … ‘Blessed is your advice and blessed are you.[2] “Van Buren” was used after the president, Martin Van Buren.[9]

  16. avatar Ghostwheel says:

    RE: LW2
    So I must be the only person here with a MIL who projects her issues on everyone else? Case in point, I made what SHE considered a faux pas at a gathering (talking with a mother about her child’s birthmark-don’t remember who brought it up, but she had no problem with our conversation). No one else noticed or cared. Later MIL goes on and on about how I insulted the mother of the child with the birthmark (?) by talking about it and how hurt the mother was, etc. Not being one to let stuff fester, I call up the mother to apologize if I insulted her, and lo and behold, she says “What? I wasn’t insulted. We were just talking about things that ARE.”

    See, MIL was insulted, no one else cared and she couldn’t stand it that no one else cared. SHE was embarrassed about the child having a birthmark, so she had to project the issue to someone else. She does this all the time. So I take LW2s complaint with a grain of salt. In my family, announcing a pregnancy at a funeral would be cause for joy, one life ends, another begins, as it should be. And this same feeling applies to everyone in Spousey’s family, with the exception of MIL. So the rest of us should not get our small amount of joy at a funeral because of one person? Doesn’t make sense to me. Your mileage may vary, but I took LW2 as a self righteous busybody who had to find some kind of fault everyone could get on board with (they asked me for money, then cut me out of their life, boo, hoo). Just me projecting, probably.

  17. avatar Brooke Schubert says:

    LW#1 is a good reminder to make sure you have a lliving will and talk to your family about what you want in case you are unable to do so if something terrible happens.  I’m only 34 but I’ve had a living will since I had a health scare when I was 20.  I’ve specified in my living will that I am DNR do NOT want to be kept alive by artificial means, and my sister (who is my health care power of attorney) and I have had heart to heart talks and I know that she’ll do everything she can to make sure I can die as I wish if the circumstances we discussed arise.

    I think the best part of the right to die laws are the comfort it gives patients.  Sometimes just knowing that death is an option if the pain gets to be too much can ease the stress on someone who has their health going downhill.

  18. avatar A R says:

    LW1: Although I’m staunchly in the Right to Die camp (sorry Belinda J.), I do want to mention that some of the nasty attacks on Belinda J’s beliefs really disappoint me. Beliefs are beliefs whether they stem from religion, philosophy, random choice, or personal experience.

    For those who write so hatefully here, you want respect for your position? Show it to others in turn. You should know by now that there is not one, single set of values that is consistently shared by any group or groups of people.

    In other words, one can be pro-right-to-die, pro-choice, pro-gun, white, female, Christian, pro-marriage equality, and Republican all in one shot. Quit trying to create a single bundle of beliefs and default qualities to assign to those who disagree with you. (Because goodness knows if they don’t agree with YOU, they must be ___, ____, ___, and ___ by default) Eye roll.

    To quote a wise, old buddy, “Just because you don’t agree with me, doesn’t mean that I’m wrong.”

    • avatar OrlGal says:

      I certainly agree. And often people’s belief system is rooted in things they don’t even understand themselves. Otherwise, how to explain someone who is against abortion, yet FOR the death penalty?

      Or someone that has been married multiple times, yet thinks gay marriage is somehow a “threat to the family.”

      People hold illogical and inconsistent views all the time. That’s OK. Where it is not OK is when you try to force your belief system on others or insult them for believing differently.

      We live in a diverse society and trying to force everyone to be “the same” is both impossible and exhausting.

    • avatar Susan JH says:

      Well said, AR.  Ganging up on someone just because they don’t share your beliefs (or for any other reason) is called bullying, and it is an ugly and destructive thing.  And by the way, I am all of those things that come behind your “in other words”, so you are right — one can be all of those things.  I am a lot of other things that might be considered to be contradictory in the same person, but c’est la vie.

  19. avatar OrlGal says:

    LW1 – I agree that folks should have the right to end their life, though I wonder about how to implement a way to insure the reason is justified, and a way that doesn’t put up a barrier for the poor.

    LW2 – I think there is so little info to go on here that one can’t form an opinion. It’s possible that these kids are as described, but equally possible the parents are leaving a lot out and these kids are doing the right thing. I am also torn on funeral announcement, would it have made a difference if they had made an touching speech about the deceased, announced the pregnancy and included that, in honor of the departed they wished to have “sisters” blessing in naming their child after her dead mother? In other words, I’m not sure even this one is black and white.

    Beyond that though, we should all realize that people perceive what is polite. And rude, differently. The Father didn’t need to “correct” them at all, as the situation had already happened and doing so served no purpose other than to make them feel bad. Yes, perhaps this sons personality is more flamboyant and self centered than parents like, but perhaps they helped create that because all his life they showed favoritism to the other sibling. Sometimes those “types” of personalities develop as a reaction to being deprived of love and attention. We all know that some parents play the favoritism game with their children from an early age, and there are few things more damaging to a child’s psyche.