One Solution for End of Life

Choosing your time to die.

I went out to eat with a group of friends yesterday. These are like-minded folks I met on, 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.

11 thoughts on “One Solution for End of Life

  1. A friend had a girlfriend whose mother jumped off a 6 storey condo. Two years later to the day the girlfriend jumped off the same condo in exactly the same spot.
    Another friend was caught out having an affair. His wife hung herself in the garage. He married the other woman, but she left him after a couple of years, so in the garage he went and hung himself.
    It is a huge shame that these things happen, and is probably the result of some inner guilt (certainly in the second case)
    When I get too old to look after myself, I think I should be able to choose my way of casting off the mortal coil, as it were.

    • It’s a horrible thing when someone causes so much pain that suicide seems to be the only solution for the one who is hurting. That the man married the other woman is amazing. But some men are apparently more heartless than I thought.

      I’m definitely with you on the old age solution. My grandfather lived for 13 years after a stroke. His mind was 100% there for most of that time, but he couldn’t walk, talk, or dress himself. For 13 years. I can’t imagine that. I think that’s a fate worse than death.

  2. I recently read of a man jumping to his death from an R-44 helicopter that he rented for a tour. Fell about 500 feet into the surf. I am a very strong advocate of assisted suicide like they have in the Netherlands, but would take it a step further to the point of not needing a reason whatsoever. There a strong sedative is administered and after the person goes into a deep sleep, the fatal dose is administered. Nice last meal and soft music, rather than a loud gun blast. If it’s my decision, I shouldn’t have to justify my reason to anyone else.

  3. Maria, I agree with you in principle, however you are then forcing the individual to pick up that gun again. The answer to mental illness is preventative care and early recognition, which is now covered by the Affordable Care Act, I’m happy to see.

    • Not sure what you mean by “pick up that gun again.” But I’m glad the Affordable Care Act covers mental illness — as well as addiction treatment — too.

  4. Maria,
    What I mean by “pick up the gun again” relates to your comment “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.” A mentally ill person wanting to commit suicide, if not given a humane way out will end it violently with a gun. And again we are back to forcing the use of violence as the final act instead of a peaceful sleep. In the end, the individual will decide whether to end it. Since we can’t change that, at least a humane way of avoiding violence should be available to all.

  5. I’ve been working with End-of-Life Choice here in New Zealand, which is advocating for legalized assisted dying. Until such a choice is enshrined by law–regulated, with safeguards–such suffering will continue, as will violent means of ending life. Isn’t this choice a basic human right?

  6. Roslyn, good for you. (I think you say “good on you” over there) for working to relieve end of life suffering. It’s such a difficult and confusing time to begin with. It’s sad that someone has to contemplate blowing a hole in one’s head to get some relief. In the U.S. there is a backwards political party that has little interest in human rights, and that is perfectly comfortable allowing children to starve and everyone to go without medical care. They are so busy catering to the religious fanatic element and the very wealthy, they would fight such legislation tooth and nail. After all, dead people don’t vote. I hope that some day we in the US can have laws that allow a peaceful end of life experience.

    • Yeah, but dead people don’s collect social welfare benefits like Medicare and Social Security, either. They should be all over this. But really what concerns them are the ethical aspects; suicide is a big no-no among religious folks.

What do you think?