Monday, June 13, 2011

Assisted dying..........

I watched an incredibly moving tv programme this evening on assisted dying. Terry Prachett, the great English novelist has early onset Alzheimer disease and in the programme he explores the whole concept of people with intensely debilitating terminal illnesses ( although life is a terminal condition anyway) having to travel abroad to get help in committing suicides.

Terry’s big fear is of the day he cannot write. Unable to communicate. He already has an assistant to whom he dictates his work as he cannot manage the keyboard anymore. As writers we have a duty to mull on these matters, to articulate for others what they may find hard to articulate. We have a duty to present both sides of the argument, tell the truth and shame the devil (great cliché). Tell our characters’ truths and through them analyse humanity to enable us to understand ourselves.

Terry talked to people all over Europe on the matter. An upper middle class wealthy English man with motor neurone disease. This man and his wife travelled to Switzerland so that he could be assessed. He got the green light and despite his wife’s misgivings he drank the killing draught. He was incredibly calm and dignified and I was glad he was able to die in this way on a beautiful snowy Swiss winter day with nice gentle Swiss assistors. He made some intelligent comments on how time moves at different.

’Be strong my darling’ he said to his incredibly brave wife, then with a few grunts and moans he drew his last breath. It was a beautiful death – if that can be said.

Terry talked about some aspects of assisted death that make him nervous. He talked very movingly of his wife who wouldn’t come on the programme, she feels differently to Terry and wants to nurse him through the illness to the end. He wants to spare her this. He talked to a man in a hospice who feels the choice should be there. He talked to the widow of another writer who did die by assisted suicide. He talked to a 42 year old man with MS who suffered deeply from depression and has failed twice in trying to take his own life. Once with three months supply of morphine – which certainly should have done the trick. His first thought when he ‘woke up’ after five days was ‘oh f**k’.This man had an assisted death planned for that weekend. He was rather flippant about it – self defence I assume. Terry’s assistant put it to him that his decision was selfish as did the young man’s mother. But the man explained why he had to do this and his mother accepted that decision. He was incredibly brave. So was she. He did go through with it and his mother went home to the UK alone.

Suicide is a very very lonely place – there is only you and the mess you know you’re leaving behind. As human beings we should all have the right to die with someone holding our hand. It is the very time we should not be alone. Not afraid and alone.

Dignitas in Switzerland also assists those who suffer from ‘a weariness of life’ to die. Dignitas believe it is a basic human right to die when one chooses, they say the very knowing you can go often gives people strength. It’s an expensive business though – 10k, but it is a non-profit organisation apparently. The dying house is based in a very beautiful part of the world, in a little blue house in the Swiss Alps – a very peaceful place. Even though it’s in the middle of an industrial estate.

I hope I never have to assist anyone to die, I do not think I could live with myself afterwards. But equally I hope that the option will be open for me if I ever become that miserable because of any mental or physical illness.

Carpe Diem.

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