Filmmaker's Parents Choose Medical Aid in Dying, End Their Lives in Emotional Docuseries: Editing 'Was Hell' (Exclusive)

Serene Meshel-Dillman opens up to PEOPLE about her six-part docuseries, 'Take Me Out Feet First,' saying the decision to end your life "should be a human right"

<p> Courtesy Serene Meshel-Dillman</p> Serene Meshel-Dillman with her parents

Courtesy Serene Meshel-Dillman

Serene Meshel-Dillman with her parents
  • Serene Meshel-Dillman lost both of her ill parents after they chose their right to medical aid in dying

  • She documented their decisions and their deaths in her new documentary, Take Me Out Feet First

  • The filmmaker, 61, hopes that their stories and others will drive medical aid in dying into law in every state

Within five years, filmmaker Serene Meshel-Dillman witnessed both of her parents end their lives in the comfort of their home.

“I think once somebody's made up their mind that way, I don't think you can dissuade them,” the 61-year-old tells PEOPLE. “So we can have our opinions and we can say what we felt, but it really has no bearing on somebody else's or my parents' decision once they had made up their minds.”

Speaking about her new documentary, Take Me Out Feet First, Meshel-Dillman — a New York City native — opens up about her parents, Miriam and Robert, choosing their right to medical aid in dying (MAID). It's different from euthanasia because the patients themselves administer prescribed drugs to end their lives, rather than a doctor.

In June 2017, Miriam was diagnosed with stage four spindle cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, after several months of back pain. She was told her disease was terminal and she had just months to live.

“She called me from the car on the way back from the doctor and she said, ‘I feel like I'm living in an alternative universe because I just got a three-month death diagnosis,’” Meshel-Dillman recalls.

Miriam — who spent decades working as a social worker for terminally ill cancer patients and witnessed her daughter-in-law’s “horrendous” six-year battle with cancer before her death — knew immediately after receiving her diagnosis that she wanted to choose MAID.

“She just didn't want to go through that and she didn't want us to go through that,” Meshel-Dillman says of her mom’s decision. “It was a no brainer. She said, ‘This is what I'm doing.’ She didn't even ask about it, she just said, ‘I'm doing it.’”

<p> Courtesy Serene Meshel-Dillman</p> Serene Meshel-Dillman with her mother

Courtesy Serene Meshel-Dillman

Serene Meshel-Dillman with her mother

Related: How Dan Diaz, Whose Wife Brittany Maynard Chose to End Her Life amid Cancer Battle, Keeps Her Memory Alive

Miriam had that option available to her under the End of Life Options Act, which went into effect in California on June 9, 2016. The law allows patients with terminal illnesses to end their lives with lethal medication under the supervision of their medical team.

In addition to California, medical aid-in-dying laws have been authorized in Oregon, Washington, Montana, Vermont, Colorado, Washington D.C., Hawaii, New Jersey, Maine, and New Mexico.

For Meshel-Dillman, she “felt like it was the right thing” for her mother to do, leaving the world without suffering or being in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy that would only extend her life by a few months.

“I just sort of felt like I had to hold her hand and just be there,” she says. “It just felt right.”

“I think that brought us closer in the end. It really helped us come to terms, express our love for each other, express our kind of regret of not having done it sooner. And it put me and her in a very good place,” she explains. “We both told each other we loved each other, and we kissed and hugged. It was very emotional and certainly would not have happened then had she not been about to die. So it kind of forced the issue, but in a good way.”

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<p> Courtesy Serene Meshel-Dillman</p> Serene Meshel-Dillman with her father

Courtesy Serene Meshel-Dillman

Serene Meshel-Dillman with her father

However, Miriam’s husband and Meshel-Dillman’s father Robert felt anger and hurt over not having a say or being a part of that decision of having to watch his wife die.

“I’m not sure I could be strong enough to do that,” Robert said in the film, admitting that he was opposed to MAID for himself. But through tears, he accepted and supported her decision.

Miriam died August 9, 2017, in her Marin County, California home at age 78.

Ultimately, Robert didn’t cope with Miriam’s death well.

“My dad was so lost. He would isolate himself, never go out, and he basically shattered any close friendships he had. Something in him died as well, and we couldn't find it again,” Meshel-Dillman says. “He felt unmoored, he felt at sea. He just didn't know what to do. He had no control and he was bereft.”

“I think he just didn't have anyone to talk to about it,” she continues. “And I think if they had provided a social worker or somebody to talk to him about the decision and how to handle it or how to help or how to navigate those waters, he would've been better off.”

After five years of grieving, Robert’s health started to decline and like Miriam, he too was diagnosed with cancer, large b-cell lymphoma, in early 2022.

“Within less than a week, he wanted out as well,” Meshel-Dillman says.

Related: Inside a Terminally Ill Man's Decision to Die and His Emotional 'Going Away' Parties with Friends and Family

<p> Courtesy Serene Meshel-Dillman</p> Serene Meshel-Dillman with her father

Courtesy Serene Meshel-Dillman

Serene Meshel-Dillman with her father

Despite doctors saying his cancer could be treated with chemotherapy, Robert switched his previous stance and opted for medical aid in dying.

“I don't even think it was the diagnosis,” Meshel-Dillman admits. “I think the diagnosis was an excuse for him. ‘Oh, this is what I can use to now get the hell out of here.’ He just stopped living and I think he did it himself.”

“He could have helped himself and lived longer, I believe,” she says. “I really feel like mentally, [my mom’s death] is what killed him. I think the brain probably has just as much to do with the body in terms of this kind of death.”

So on March 30, 2022, Meshel-Dillman sat with her father as he chose to die.

Meshel-Dillman filmed the final moments of her parents’ lives — from their decisions to die to their last breaths. She says she was “just trying to help” them exit on their own terms and timelines.

But as a director, Meshel-Dillman says editing the episode "was hell."

"It was really rough. I can't watch the episode of my dad without crying and sobbing for a good couple hours,” she shares. “Even right now talking about it, it's upsetting. With my mom, I never cried. With my dad, it just creeps up on me and grabs me by the neck and shakes me and then lets me go.”

Related: Woman, 28, Opts for Euthanasia Rather Than Living with Mental Illness: 'I’m a Little Afraid of Dying'

Related: Woman Chooses Euthanasia on 34th Birthday Due to Depression, Eating Disorder Struggles: 'I Want to Step Out of Life'

Miriam and Robert are just two of several terminally ill people who Meshel-Dillman profiled in Take Me Out Feet First.

The six-part docuseries — made in partnership with the nonprofit advocacy organization Compassion & Choices — features those who also sought medical aid in dying, their friends and families, as well as medical experts who advocate for MAID laws across the country.

Meshel-Dillman hopes the exposure from the series drives MAID into law in every state.

“It's so important that people have this option in many more states,” she tells PEOPLE. “It's in legislation now or being put into committee in 19 other states around the country.”

“In states where it wasn't legal, the angst in the family’s struggles and the sadness and literally the pain and suffering that it forces on people that don't have access… I have to show [that] so that people realize the extent that people have to go through to have this choice, which should be a human right,” she adds.

Take Me Out Feet First is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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Read the original article on People.