Brittany Maynard's Husband, Dan Diaz, Opens Up About Losing His Wife & Honoring Her Memory

Photo: Courtesy of Dan Diaz.
One year has passed since 29-year-old terminal brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard ended her life peacefully at her home, a choice that ignited a firestorm of controversy in a country divided on the right to die. On October 6, 2014, Brittany and the nonprofit Compassion & Choices launched an emotional video campaign in which Brittany explained her decision to end her life and defended others’ right to do the same. On November 1, with her husband, family, and friends at her side, Maynard drank lethal medication.

Brittany and her husband, Dan Diaz, had moved from Northern California to Oregon, one of only five states that authorized aid in dying at the time. But last month, due in no small part to the national conversation that Maynard sparked (and the fervent advocacy of her widower), California joined that list when Governor Jerry Brown signed the End Of Life Option Act into law. “In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” wrote Brown, who, like many of the bill’s opponents, identifies with the Catholic tradition. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”

Dan, who left his job in the consumer packaging industry in July to advocate full-time for aid in dying as a contractor for Compassion & Choices, describes the “relief and gratitude” he felt when the governor signed the bill. “What Compassion & Choices has attempted to do for the last 15 or 20 years, I like to think that Brittany took care of within nine months,” he says. We spoke with Dan about his life after Brittany’s death, the battle to pass the End Of Life Option Act, and how proud he is of the wife whose absence he feels every day. (Click here to read our interview with Brittany last year, just before her death.)
Photo: Courtesy of Dan Diaz.
What was it like to say goodbye to Brittany?
"On November 1, she was feeling...discomfort and had had a seizure that morning. She just knew it was her time... Early on, she told me, ‘Dan, I’m not afraid to die’ — death didn’t have that power over her — ‘but I am afraid of suffering, especially since I’m dying anyway. I’d rather pass away gently, not struggling and with pain.’ I completely understood. In our society, our culture, we tend to say there’s nothing worse than death. But the worst thing would be to be tortured to death. There’s nothing worse than that: the idea that your last days are spent suffering horrifically, and then you die anyways, and that’s your last memory, the last thing you experience.

"On November 1, Brittany did the things that she wanted to do. We went on a walk with the dogs and the people that were at the house — a few of her friends, her family, my younger brother was there. We got back, and she wrote a few things on Facebook, some notes to her friends generally, and we were in bed together. After taking the medication, she fell asleep within about five minutes, and within 30 minutes, her breathing slowed and she passed away very gently. And that’s a dying process the tumor was not going to allow her to have if it took its course. The hope, of course, is that you don’t need to use the medication — that palliative care is comfortable. But in her case, that wasn’t the reality. Morphine wasn’t controlling her pain."
Photo: Courtesy of Dan Diaz.
Since Brittany's death, you have become a champion for the right to aid in dying. Tell me about that work.
"I got the opportunity to partner with Compassion & Choices, and on January 21, 2015, we introduced the End Of Life Option Act, and for the next nine months, I was just in Sacramento making appointments with senators, assembly members, giving interviews, writing op-ed pieces, trying to meet with and share with our legislators the reality of what this legislation means to a terminally ill individual. All of a sudden, I found a bit of wanting to work on that and keep my promise to Brittany. I told her I’d do whatever I can so that no one else has to go through what she went through — what we went through, leaving our home.

I told her I’d do whatever I can so that no one else has to go through what she went through

"[In California] we have 40 senators, and I probably met with 30 of them; we have 80 assembly members, and I probably met with 60 of them. Some were great — they understand or at least had an open mind about the conversation. Others were so entrenched in their own paradigm, a lot of it being religious reasons. When a senator says ‘Well, I’m going to have to consult my priest on this,' I’m sitting there thinking, Wait, really? Your priest is just one of the 930,000 people that you represent. If you’re going to take his opinion and weight it as such, that’s fine, but you’re going to refer to just your priest, and based off of that conversation, you’re going to vote and represent your constituency in that manner?

"But we got through the Senate, we got through the Assembly... From there, the bill went back to the Senate for one more vote, then off to the governor’s desk. When the governor signed that bill on October 5, [I felt] a sense of relief — really, it was gratitude to Governor Brown, especially with the statement that he released... The Governor typically just signs a bill, or he vetoes a bill; he doesn’t give an explanation. But in this case, he referred to Brittany by name. This year alone, 24 other states and Washington D.C. introduced legislation regarding end-of-life options. On most cases, the authors of the bill mentioned Brittany’s story. Now that we’ve been successful in California, I think we have some opportunities in New York."
Photo: Courtesy of Dan Diaz.

What is your message to critics of aid in dying?
"This legislation affects such a small percentage of our population. It’s a tiny number, but for those individuals that are in that predicament, they’re entitled to have a gentle passing, just like the rest of us want. The opposition blows it out of proportion. They make it sound like death squads are going to be marching down the street and taking people out, and it’s like ‘No, it’s just so that somebody like Brittany, who has a brain tumor, doesn’t have to suffer for the last week of her life.’

"The opposition loves using the word 'suicide' — they can’t get enough of that word. To say that Brittany committed suicide would require that she was suicidal, and there was nothing suicidal about my wife. She wanted to live. The brain tumor was killing her. She had no control over that. Her destiny, her death, was imminent. She simply took the control back, so that she didn’t have to suffer. I tell the opposition, ‘Go ahead; tell me again how my wife was suicidal.’ Of course they can’t."

There was nothing suicidal about my wife. She wanted to live... I tell the opposition, 'Go ahead, tell me again how my wife was suicidal.'

Has advocacy felt like a natural role for you?
"Brittany was an introvert, and so am I — the fact that we put ourselves out there or that I’m talking to you right now, that’s not necessarily our comfort zone, but we do it because it’s what’s needed to make a difference. Brittany didn’t intend to be the face of this movement, and in a million years I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be now working on this type of effort. But it’s important. End-of-life options legislation doesn’t result in more people dying. It results in fewer people suffering."

More from Trends


R29 Original Series