The drama over whether to keep Terri Schiavo (search) alive, as her parents wish, or allow her to die, which her husband advocates, has played out in courts, Congress and newspapers. But this highly public struggle is usually private, faced daily by American families in hushed hospital rooms and hospices (search), at the bedsides of children, spouses and parents.
It is an agonizing decision that can tear loved ones apart, or bring them closer; that can leave even those with written directives questioning their choices, their faith, themselves.
Barbara Dalicandro Daggett remembers feeling some sense of peace that day in 2000 when a doctor explained that her mother was dying.
Mary Dalicandro's lungs had filled with fluid, and she could no longer breathe on her own. But the headstrong 80-year-old's wishes were clear. A hospital was out of the question, and Mrs. Dalicandro didn't want a machine doing what she couldn't do on her own.
When she quietly slipped away two weeks later, she was at home, in her own bed, surrounded by those who loved her. It was sad, of course, her daughter recalls — but it also felt right. "She was a very dignified woman," Daggett says, "and she would not have wanted tubes hanging out of her, people all around, her privacy invaded — never."
Those who have been there feel empathy for Schiavo and her family, but also concern about the precedent the case could set. They wonder if the cause has overshadowed the woman at the center of it.
"Who is caring about her dignity?" asks Daggett, a school administrator in Phoenix.
"I would never have done that to my husband," Kathleen Scott says of the efforts by Schiavo's parents to keep her connected to the feeding tube that has kept her alive the past 15 years. Court-appointed doctors say Schiavo, 41, is in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery, but her parents insist she could recover with treatment.
Stan Scott, a Chicago area building inspector, was 35 when he fell from a garage roof in 2003 and landed on his head. Within days, his brain stem, memory and part of the brain that controls motor skills were gone, though he wasn't clinically brain-dead.
The couple had no living wills but had agreed they wouldn't want to be kept alive by machines. With the backing of her husband's family, Kathleen Scott determined Stan's life support should be disconnected. She was preparing to sign the papers when he died.
"My husband took it out of my hands ...," she says. "It's heartwrenching to know the decision you make is going to change the rest of your life, your children and your husband.
"I'm glad we didn't end up like this 15 years later," she says. Schiavo's parents, she believes, are "grasping at straws."
Frank Natarelli of Sun City, Ariz., heard that kind of skepticism when he instructed doctors to take necessary measures to help his 80-year-old father when he fell ill with pneumonia. He was on life support for 10 days, but lived another four years.
Natarelli recently signed a do-not-resuscitate order for his mother, who suffered a stroke. But he acknowledges the circumstances — not a piece of paper — would dictate whether he follows through with the directive.
"Until you're in my shoes, you can't make the decision," says Natarelli, adding that the same is true for the outsiders weighing in on the fate of Schiavo. "We're not there; we can't judge what is going on. If we were there seeing her clinging to life, seeing things her parents might be seeing, who knows? You have a feeling when a person wants to go."
Still others applaud the all-out effort in Congress and the courts on behalf of Schiavo.
"I believe in a government that would basically move heaven and earth for one person," says Cheryl Spencer of Louisville, Tenn., who ignored doctors who said her son would never come out of a coma after a motorcycle accident. He did.
John Sullivan understands such decisions are hardly clear-cut. He and his wife signed living wills directing that no extreme measures be taken to keep them alive. At age 81, Catherine Sullivan died of emphysema Jan. 31 after six months of hospice care at their home in Oakland, N.J.
And yet, Sullivan says, if the choice involved a child rather than a spouse, "I would find it difficult." In the Schiavo case, "if it was my daughter, I wouldn't want to say, 'Just close it out.'"
When Carrie Morris' 33-year-old son, Don, was hit by a drunken driver in 1995, doctors said he'd probably be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. She was forced to play God: If he couldn't move and think again, she decided, she would let her son die.
Don lay in a coma for weeks, but survived. He now lives with his mother near Fort Worth, Texas, and owns a handyman business, though his IQ isn't what it once was and the left side of his throat remains paralyzed. Morris, nevertheless, doesn't second-guess her initial decision to let him die if the diagnosis was hopeless.
"It takes so much strength of character to let them go. No sacrifice that could ever be asked of you could be more difficult because, forever, you will live with the what-if," she says. "The family in Florida is caught in a very private hell, and there is no right answer."
But what bothers Morris, Daggett and others who've been there is that the private hell surrounding Schiavo has become so very public — fodder for politicians and debates about morality and, even, "murder." When Congress intervened, passing a bill that allowed Schiavo's parents to take their fight to federal court, Daggett watched angrily, thinking, "What are they doing?"
"I don't think that, personally, government, congressmen should be making that decision for the families," adds Cassandra Cotton, who was accused by a sibling of being a killer when Cotton instructed doctors not to put their cancer-stricken mother on a ventilator in 1991.
Cotton now works as the community relations and outreach coordinator at Nathan Adelson Hospice in Las Vegas, urging individuals to sign a directive spelling out their wishes.
Bonnie Morgan, a Phoenix hospice nurse grappling with her own painful decisions about the nourishment of her Parkinson's-plagued mother, hopes the legacy of the Schiavo case is a lesson.
"There's going to be some good that comes out of this — the conversations that people are having around their dinner tables," she says. "It should always be tough and we should always have people who care enough to have these hard conversations."