Would you kill a loved one to end their suffering?

Would you kill a loved one to end their suffering? post image

It’s always very sad when you get that phone call that tells you there’s been a death in the family. Rest in peace auntie Olive, I’ll remember you fondly… BUT not from the last 10 years.

You see my Great Auntie, sister to my beloved grandmother, has been in a care home for the last 10ish years, well her body has at any rate, her mind has been AWOL. I remember her as a vibrant, fiercely independent woman, as was her sister. I remember them caring for my great grandmother and promising each other, if they ever lost their marbles as she had before the end, they would put a black bin bag over each other’s heads and check out with some dignity. Sadly that didn’t happen for either of them.

Both sisters lost their minds in their latter years and ceased to be the people known to their family, and known to me. I visited my grandmother and was aghast at the person I was confronted with, but what made it worse was knowing that had she the self cognition left to understand what was happening to her, she would have been mortally ashamed. I didn’t want to remember her that way, and I know she wouldn’t have wanted me to see her dishevelled, unkempt and incapable of recognising me or holding a sane conversation.

Whilst I feel some shame about it, this is the reason I haven’t visited my great aunt in 10 years: I know she wouldn’t have wanted me to; it would have upset me; and it would have spoilt the memory I have of her. Maybe some would say that’s a cop out and an excuse, but I have thought long and hard many times in the last 10 years about a visit, and always decided against it on those grounds.

Strokes and other old age ailments rob our elderly relatives of dignity and condemn them to a long and suffering death. Indeed hours before my auntie Olive died, I’d been told that they were planning to withdraw all medicine and take her to a palliative care home; a check out hotel effectively. How nice that the best the medical profession could come up with would be to provide her with a painful, uncomfortable, lingering death at the end of her 10 year journey to the grave.

Put a dog to sleepI have to ask myself: what’s the point of it? Why keep someone alive who has next to no quality of life? As my father in law used to say: “You wouldn’t let an animal suffer like this, so why would you let a person?” What has auntie Olive gained or achieved in the last 10 years? Every time I asked people how she was, I was always told that she basically wasn’t there and didn’t recognise visitors. It’s so very very sad.

So what’s the alternative? Euthanasia? Why not, we put animals “to sleep” to use the common euphemism. And believe me, if you’ve ever had to do it, that’s no easy decision. As a grown man I’ve never cried more than when I’ve had to take a living pet to the vet, and come out with a dead one. But you do it, you make that most difficult of choices, not for you, but for the pet you love dearly. You decide that when the time comes, it’s the last loving gift you can give, the gift of rest from a painful, meaningless, inexorable slide into death.

But most crucially, it’s done at a time of your choosing. When you can be with them, with other loved ones, to comfort and hold them in the last moments. After all, who here wants to die alone? Given a choice, wouldn’t we all want to die at a time of our choosing, with our family and friends at our side, with the opportunity to say goodbye one last time?

For 5 years Ted, my father in law declined, getting more and more infirm and paranoid. I remember well the look of deep embarrassment in his eyes after I’d helped him to the commode and then had to bend down to pull his pyjama bottoms up as he could no longer do it himself. I remember many times getting the “You’d better come quick” phone call and dropping everything to rush the 100 miles to his hospital bedside, the all night vigils that followed, the waiting for days, just sitting watching the heart rate monitor wondering if the next beep would be the last and then what you’d do if it was. Would you rush out to find a nurse or just sit there and let nature finally give him the peace he deserved? Every time we left, I wondered if that was the last goodbye?

My mother in law and sister in law would keep near constant watch over him, taking it in shifts to be at his bedside, especially when he was in hospital. My mother in law especially was adamant that someone would be with him when he finally went. This went on for years. In the end, he died alone anyway despite them being in the hospital at the time; they’d just popped to buy a sandwich and returned after 1/2 an hour to discover he’d passed away. I sometimes wonder if it was Ted’s last joke, because if anyone would have seen the ironic humour in that, he would have. I loved that not so old man, but hated seeing him in his declining years, and worried that my mother in law would feel guilty that she wasn’t there for him at the end, I know my wife did, and that is so sad for all involved.

Terry Pratchett Alzheimer's Disease EuthanasiaIt seems to me then, that thinking about what’s best for the terminally ill relative, and what’s best for their family, is to die with dignity and a minimum of pain and discomfort, at a time of their choosing, with the people around them that they love. This is why the Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas has become a world wide name, with some very famous people signing up for its services, like the world famous author Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld series of books, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

As adults we have almost complete control of our lives: where we live, what we do for a career, what we do for leisure, who we marry (mostly!), what we eat, how much exercise we get, what kind of car we drive etc etc, and yet as soon as it comes to a choice about death, oh no, the state intervenes and says: “You shall not think about how to die. You shall not think about ending your life. And if you do, you’re mentally ill and we’ll take your freedom to choose away.” In a “free” society, it’s an weird anomaly.

So why does the government take this stance? It all comes down to religion. As a nominally Christian country, the state imposes the Christian belief that life is sacrosanct, and only God can choose when to end it. Well that’s fine. I completely respect people’s freedom to choose a religion that suits them, and their right to practice their religion without impediment, providing doing so doesn’t impede the freedom of others to follow a different religion.

That’s reasonable isn’t it? You do your thing, and I’ll do mine. That’s what being free is all about. But what when your religious choices impact my religious choices? What happens when your religious belief is deemed to be more important then mine? If you believe that all men should wear a head covering as some orthodox Jews do, does that mean that men who aren’t Jews should be force to? Most reasonable (non-Jews) would say not. And what if you believe that you should give 10% of your earnings as a tithe to the church? Should all people be force to do that? Most again would say not. It’s a choice.

So why is it that because your religion says people should not want to die and shouldn’t be allowed to kill themselves, that that belief should be imposed on those that want the freedom to determine their own destiny? In fact it’s worse than that, it’s not just illegal to commit suicide, it’s illegal to help someone kill themselves. There have even been organisations like the Hemlock Society setup to give people information on how to die with dignity. There are sites you can find on how to hang yourself for example, all illegal under UK law I believe anyway.

Nitrogen - Helium Suicide Hood Bag KitI remember a story last year about someone being prosecuted in the UK for selling suicide bag kits, or “Exit bags” as they are called, which are just plastic bags you put over your head, but fill with an inert gas like nitrogen or helium to bypass the body’s natural anti-asphyxiation response. You just breath normally until you lose consciousness and then die in your sleep. It’s the quick, painless, and pretty much certain checkout method of choice apparently.

Now the interesting thing is that asphyxiation by breathing nitrogen is apparently pretty hard to detect, after all, 80% of the air we breath is nitrogen anyway. This could even be used as a method to kill someone without detection perhaps. What if you decided that an elderly relative would be better off leaving this mortal existence and decided to hurry them along a bit with said nitrogen filled suicide hood? Of course now you’ve stepped over a line and you’re a murderer, however well intentioned you may have been.

But, and here’s the rub, most old people I’ve had the pleasure to know, know one thing for certain: they don’t want to be a burden. I guess there comes a time in your life when you realise that you’ve had the best of your innings and it’s time to leave the world to the next generation. Particularly if you’re in ill health, have failing funding, on a low pension, perhaps your life partner has already passed away and you’re lonely. Maybe your family have mostly moved away and don’t visit as often as you’d like.

If you were in a situation like that, feeling low and depressed but putting on a brave face perhaps, and a family member came along and suggested to you that perhaps it was time to “move on”, maybe you’d listen. Perhaps that family member wanted a cash injection, and had an eye for their inheritance from your estate, mostly from the proceeds from selling your house, and didn’t want it frittered away on nursing home fees. Perhaps you weren’t ready to go just yet but were made to feel unwanted, un-needed, unloved, and a “burden”, and pressure was applied to make you consider suicide. Violence might be used, whether physical of psychological. I can imagine it wouldn’t take too much to convince a frail old relative, against their better judgement, that it was time to check out.

And there you have it, the simple reason that euthanasia is currently illegal in most of the world, because of the chance that it might be abused. That people might be coerced. Maybe even that people could be surreptitiously murdered, perhaps even by a medical professional like Dr Harold Shipman, possibly the UK’s worst ever serial killer. And so elderly people in their hundreds of thousands are left to suffer and rot in so called “care” homes, slowly waiting for an ever increasingly emotionally and physically agonising death, because of the fear of abuse that allowing euthanasia will bring.

Do I think the system would be abused? For sure it will, just like humans abuse every system and environment they find themselves in. Do I think that by far the greater harm is done by not allowing it? For sure it is. Do I think that we humans can be pretty clever when we put our minds to it, and can devise a system that installs suitable safeguards for 99.9% of cases? Absolutely we can. The Swiss seem to have managed it already in fact, so it can be done.

Euthanasia is a very emotional and touchy subject, and rightly so, because death is something that will come to us all. Yes me, and even you reading this now! Let us hope that by the time it comes to you and me, we have the right to choose when and where and with whom we will die. I for one don’t intend to wither in a nursing home for years, begging for the end and emotionally scaring my child in the process.

Goodbye auntie Olive, I’m sorry I didn’t visit you but I know I’ll remember you how you’d have wanted me too.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • John 14 March 2015, 10:22 am

    A very good, thought provoking article Colin. There has to be more stringent safeguards to protect our individual right to die with dignity and not have those that have helped in any way to die, be prosecuted. My Granddad was a lovely man who became an angry shriveled shell after Alzheimer’s got a grip of him and he had to go into a nursing home. My lasting memory, was visiting him and being shocked at how much weight he’d lost, the smell of urine throughout the nursing home, the constant murmurs from people sat in chairs all around him, then him saying to me ‘who are you?’ when I greeted him with a hug. I didn’t visit him again as it was so upsetting to see him like that and several years later he passed away on my birthday, whilst I was on holiday. The guilt has remained, but I wish I hadn’t seen him like that and hope my parents are not forced into that same path of having no choice or dignity in their last years!

  • Colin McNulty 19 March 2015, 4:52 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to comment John. All I can suggest is you take some comfort from the fact that your compos mentis grandfather would no doubt have supported your decisions.

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