Choosing your time to die.
I went out to eat with a group of friends yesterday. These are like-minded folks I met on Meetup.com, Freethinkers. We meet monthly for dinner. During the summer months, we have potluck BBQs in a park along the Columbia River. Now that the weather has cooled down and days are shorter, we’ve taken our meetings indoors. We ate at Thongbai, a great Thai place in downtown Wenatchee, yesterday.
It was a great night out. I think there were at least 20 of us all seated around an L-shaped table in the back room. Lots of good conversation. But there was a pall hanging over some members of the group and it wasn’t until after we’d ordered our food that I discovered why: two of our members, an elderly couple, had killed themselves in late September.
Charles was 81; his wife Ruth was 97. Ruth had health and mobility problems and could not live without assistance. Charles may have had health problems, too. They’d moved out of their house and into a Wenatchee condo in 2011. In late September, Charles arranged his affairs and got into his car with Ruth in the condo’s garage. He used a semi-automatic handgun to kill Ruth before shooting himself.
After dinner, we discussed their deaths and our thoughts about the situation in some detail. One by one, we each offered up our own opinions. They were remarkably similar: we all believed that a person should have the right to end his/her own life when the quality of life deteriorates. What made us all sad was the violent method Charles had used. We wished they could have gone out together more peacefully, hand-in-hand while they drifted off to that last sleep.
Their situation really struck a chord with me. In October, my godfather was approaching the end of his life. His quality of life had faded to the point where he probably wouldn’t have considered it worth living. I went to visit him one last time, dreading the thought of seeing him a shadow of his former self but wanting to offer him some kind of comfort in his final days. But I didn’t get there fast enough; he died the day before I left Washington. As I wrote last week, I felt good that his suffering was limited and his death was relatively quick. He didn’t need to take action as Charles and Ruth had; I doubt he would have anyway. I was just glad that he didn’t have to suffer longer than necessary.
My friend sitting beside me at dinner last night had another suicide story. Today, she’s heading over the mountains to the Seattle area to attend the funeral of a 23-year-old girl who had taken her own life. No one knew why. She was young and pretty and had a lot going for her.
In my mind, I think about the differences in these people. Charles and Ruth, together their entire lives, facing the decline of body and mind that comes with old age. Making the decision to end their lives together before they’re too far gone to make that decision (and take action) for themselves. And this 23-year-old girl, with her whole life ahead of her, bowing out without trying to live. I can understand Charles and Ruth’s decision, but can’t understand the girl’s.
I’ve written about suicide more than once in this blog. It seems to be a topic I can’t avoid — I’ve been exposed to it more than what’s natural. The Conrail engineer’s stories about people who’d purposely stand or lie or park on the railroad tracks, knowing the train couldn’t stop. The suicide I witnessed back in 2004. The artist who hung himself in one of my rental apartments. The new tenant who killed herself before even moving in. The friend who dove into the five-story atrium at work. The cousin’s girlfriend who dove off the roof of her apartment building.
Every situation is different, every situation is tragic in its own way. Every situation makes me think hard about what was going on in their heads when they committed their final act.
But as for Charles and Ruth — although I’m sad about their demise, I understand their decision. They chose to die when they were ready.