Cambridge, Mass. – Last year in April I cleaned the blood after my beloved sister-in-law took her life. It took five hours, I never want to do anything similar again, but it was an act of love to her and her grown children.
She’d tried 18 months before and it cost $10,000 for a Hazmat team to clear it up, my brother-in-law could not afford that amount again and lacked the emotional strength to do what I did.
Beautiful, kind-hearted K. had suffered for years with clinical depression. I believe that her act was one of love and consideration to those around her, she wanted no one to suffer with her, for the first time in years she ignored the doctors, she took control of her life, and ended it.
K. would never have qualified for assisted dying even though life was a constant struggle and she could see no prospect of it improving. By the end she was on high doses of prescription drugs, she was often so drugged that she struggled to focus or concentrate.
In November last year, I was one of the 49 percent in Massachusetts who voted in favor of assisted dying.
As someone who counsels those with HIV or AIDS and those raped, I deal with many people who feel their lives are desperate and want to end it, and I have borne witness to the miracles of their lives transform as they accept their condition and engage life in happy, strong new ways, defying the stigma that accompanies their conditions. But health is on their side; HIV is now a disease that is less onerous to manage than diabetes or a heart condition.
I’ve also witnessed the withering and excruciating pain of those with terminal cancer or AIDS and the incredible spiritual sorrow of those who love them, or tend to them. I have a friend whose 89-year-old mother has Alzheimer’s and in lucid moments begs to die, but doctors ply her with the pills that make pharmaceutical companies rich, extend her life, and cripple the life of my friend.
My friend doesn’t resent this, never married and with a busy job, she has put her life on hold to care for her mother. She and her sister-in-law take turns to care for her mom, and they have a network of caregivers they can call on when they need some time off. It’s digging deep into her savings, but she shrugs, “she’s my mom.”
She also recognizes the injustice of her mom being forced to live a life that is no longer life.
A beloved 86-year-old friend was active until he was 84 and then his heart condition and mobility problems sapped the joy from his life. For two years he wanted to die. His wife of 65 years at first resisted it, but he was able to confide in me, and once she accepted his desire to die they had the most loving, intimate years of their marriage. I’ll never forget the last time I saw him, he struggled to sit on the edge of the bed where he spent most of his last year, “I just want to die, Charlene, I want to die. How can God be so cruel to let me live? I’ve had a good life, I need to go now. No one will help me to die.”
I realized again that granting release to those in such misery is an act of love. Death after all, is part of life.
As a journalist who covered conflict, I’ve seen a lot of pointless and violent death. I write this from the United States where President Barack Obama, the King of Drones, is itching to attack Syria. Yes a genocidal despot leads Syria, but I thought the world had a war crimes tribunal to deal with such people, if his own citizens don’t get to him first? And there is a real risk this could lead to a bigger war, Syria has the capacity to fire chemical weapons as far as Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and beyond. How can the president of a peaceful country send healthy young men and women to certain death, to prevent more death? President George Bush did this with Iraq and Afghanistan, and twelve years later with hundreds of thousands of dead and the suicides of 22 U.S. veterans with Post Traumatic Stress each day, we’re left asking, what was that about?
Where is the dignity or love in those deaths? And yet we shudder if a person with no quality of life, who exists in terrible pain, unable to walk or move, asks to be allowed to die?
I think we have very strange ‘values’.
I’ve said to my children that if I develop dementia they must put me in a home and leave, I don’t want to be remembered in that way. Ideally I’d prefer to be assisted out of this life.
I’m at the tail end of the boomer generation, the largest cohort of elderly the world will ever know. In ten years time we will cripple economies with high health costs, our children will find themselves with young families to care for and elderly parents who drain considerable time and resources from their lives. Why should we be so selfish?
It is not progress if medical science allows us to live into our eighties, nineties, or hundreds when we have no quality of life, when we are little more than dribbling, unfocused, urine-smelling, defecating machines. It benefits doctors and drug companies, no one else.
When my time comes and if I want to go either because of a crippling illness or considerable age I hope Massachusetts will have, like four other U.S. states, finally passed a law that allows me to go gently to my rest.
I’m also an organ donor, I want what is left to benefit the lives of those who are younger and deserve a chance at life. And what remains can go to medical science, my body is but a husk, I am the person who writes these notes, the sentient, healthy being who feels blessed by the sun on my fingers as I type these words.
At the end of this month I, and some of those who loved K. take part in a road race to raise funds for a suicide prevention counseling service, we believe that if some, temporarily disabled by the sorrow of a relationship or job loss can be helped to find new meaning in life, then we should do all we can to enable that. But by the same token, we also need to have the wisdom to allow those whose suffering is too great to progress to have the final say.
And I know too, how hard it is for families to let go, today a friend’s only child goes for a bone marrow transplant to try and reverse stage four cancer. I pray for her life and the lives of those who love her.
Cambridge, MA – United States of America
Charlene Smith is an award-winning journalist, and author of 15 books including, http://www.amazon.com/Mandela-In-Celebration-Great-Life/dp/1431700797/