A programme I saw not long ago that made me think deeply. In my position you won’t be surprised.
A British man and his wife were entering a clinic in Switzerland. I noticed that as he entered, he looked for a secure hold on the door frame as he passed through, and by his gait, I knew immediately that his problem was neural.
I was already aware that he’d come to that clinic to die, on that day. After all, that was what the programme was about. He was terminally ill, and his future was bleak, without hope of relief. He’d made a decision to do so, by the process Switzerland is now famous for, (or infamous, whichever way you look at it).
Assisted suicide is its real name, but it's wrongly called euthanasia. That term has been hijacked, which is a pity. Euthanasia means nothing more than a “good death”.
Hands up all those who want a bad death? Not a lot, I see. However you want to die, whether by Dylan Thomas’s not going gentle and fighting in rage all the way, or by slipping quietly away in peace, you surely want what you regard as a good death.
I'd like to see the unhijacking of the term, euthanasia. Let's unhook it from Assisted Suicide. Well, I will, but probably it will remain confused with many other things: suicide without any help from anyone else, encouragement to suicide, assisting someone else to die illegally, unnatural death of one sort or another right through to murder – everything that doesn't leave you to controlled palliative care but leads to premeditated death tends to be called euthanasia.
When people argue about it, they are often talking about different things. It annoys me sometimes that they don't agree at least what they're arguing about, and just muddy the waters.
My focus here is on something more limited; legally assisting in the death of a person of sound mind but with a terminal illness – because they’ve reached a point that they want to die.
That's exactly what this chap had come to Switzerland to do. He and his wife entered the clinic and sat down side by side in a lounge chair. He talked with his wife and the medical staff there about the process – not for the first time, obviously. This was the culmination of an extended discussion he’d had with them over a long period of time, after talking with his personal doctor. He had fulfilled their strict conditions.
His wife was hesitant, but she had decided long before to support his wishes. She'd seen what he'd been through up to this point. Her acquiescence was an act of love.
At one stage, when asked how about her feelings, she said she wished that he would have stayed so the family could have one last Christmas together, but she knew he felt he had had enough.
I thought she was very brave.
So this was the day. The process was unhurried and calm. He was given plenty of time to face exactly what he was doing, or to change his mind now that he was on the brink. Then came the irrevocable moment of decision. Once he had drunk this clear liquid, that would be it. Really it.
He shared some chocolate with his wife and made some little joke to lighten the moment. I think part of the reason for the chocolate was that the liquid he was about to swallow was very unpleasant-tasting. There seemed a lot of it, but he’d been warned not to stop once he’d started. One last little kiss shared – a rather formal one, given they were surrounded discreetly by medical personnel. He smiled at her, gulped the liquid down.
Within seconds, he laid his head on his wife’s shoulder, snored quietly and peacefully for no longer than a minute, gave a little convulsive movement, and his breathing stopped. The medical staff took his weight gently from his wife’s shoulder and proceeded with the preliminary formalities of declaring him dead.
As far as I recall, his wife was very calm. She didn’t cry. After some time, she got up, and quietly walked out of the door. She was going back to England shortly after. I think his body was going back home on the same flight.
I confess my first thought was how eerie it all must have been for her. She had walked in with her husband who had a few minutes before been smiling nervously and talkative, and she now walked out alone, knowing her husband was dead. She would get in the car, alone. Have a single seat on the plane.
It was a premeditated act, a choice of death over life. Just how could she have felt?
I can't imagine. Some state of numbed shock, surely, now that it had come to pass.
He had found the peace he was ready for. I'll never begrudge him that. I'm not sure how long it would take her to do the same.
I hope it wasn’t long.
[to be continued, I intend.]