I live in a country (USA) where in most states, it is illegal to allow a dog or a cat to live in suffering, but it is also illegal to help someone who is human to end their own suffering. I say most states because some allow it, but only if your doctor says you are eligible for hospice or close enough to death. If you are young and suffering daily, this isn’t an option. You have a life sentence.
I was asked today if I have ever had feelings of being suicidal. I had to pause, because this is a hot button issue for me in so many, many ways. Everyone who is chronically ill to the point of not being able to live a normal life, or terminally ill, has probably considered this. It’s not that we are suicidal. It’s that we are acutely aware of what awaits us, we do not want to be a burden, and there is a certain point where we simply think the benefits of being alive are no longer outweighed bye the heaviness and pain of our medical conditions. We have DNR’s (do not resuscitate), living wills and advanced directives. But there’s only so much we can do without violating the law or asking someone else too.
For me, the situation is exacerbated by my family history. When I was 26, I watched my husband die from skin cancer that spread to his lungs and brain. At one point or another, he asked five different friends and family members to kill him. Nobody was able to do that. It’s heartbreaking feeling, knowing it is his last request and you can’t do it.
Five years later, I experienced a far more traumatic example of why this is an issue. My grandfather took care of my grandmother for 10 years while she had Alzheimer’s disease. He was proud to do it, as he Said she had taken care of him his entire life, and it was his turn to take care of her. He took her for drinks on Friday nights, took her to get her manicures and pedicures every week, and took her for a walk every night. I also remember his keys and how every door locked from the inside instead of just from the outside to keep her from wandering away. He took great joy and being able to take care of her.
At some point she got to a place where she was crying every day, couldn’t remember why her hip was in so much pain, and was begging to die. He took her to her doctor, and they refilled some medication she was already on, and said see you next year. I had a conversation with him later in this story and he asked me what I thought that meant. I answered honestly, “there was nothing more they could do for her.” He said, “Exactly.”
On October 3, 2004, my grandfather laid out all his paperwork, banking records, and I believe he at least tried to write a letter, though I don’t think it was ever made available to the family. He talked to my mom about a boxing on tv that night and said goodnight like normal. But the next morning, he made a call to his son, a nationally renowned doctor, and sad, “I killed your mother, how can I kill myself?”
My uncle told him to simply take her bottle of pills and he would go to sleep. This actually gave him time to contact the sheriffs office, and they were able to get there in time to get him medical help so they survived.
He knew what he was doing. I had to keep my six year old from watching the news, because he came on in a picture with the words below it, “murder or mercy killing?” I had a unique perspective, having watched my husband slowly die. Having wanted to do what he asked me to do. We were not able to do it, but my grandfather was. He knew what he would face. I don’t believe he wanted to die, as he was a veteran and worked in a pretty difficult field in the army. I think if he had wanted to die, he would have. This was his way of trying to stay alive, while hopefully not spending the rest of his life in a prison cell when he had never had so much as a speeding ticket in his entire life.
He spent three months behind bars, and I remember crying when I brought his glasses and they said he couldn’t have them at the hospital. Finally they released him on bond on the condition that he remained with a family member at all times. The entire court room stood up and clapped after everyone testified and the judge made the ruling. Lucky me, of all the people in the court room, I was the one who caught on camera in tears, in my last year of law school. The next day people kept saying they saw me on TV, and I had no idea how to respond because that meant they knew why I was there.
He spent his last days living with my mother, and I will try to help out by taking him to visit my other grandfather so they could play dominoes, and I still remember driving him to vote, which he was very proud of. That was the car ride where he asked the question about what I would’ve thought a doctor’s appointment. I had the chance to tell him I completely understood because we had been through a similar thing with my husband. I felt like I was the only person who really and truly understood. And I was angry. I was angry that what he was doing was saving her from pain, just like somebody want for a dog, except that is considered kind, and helping a human to do the same is a crime.
My grandfather passed less than a year later, from emphysema, literally during my last final exams for law school. I remember wearing his necklace to my graduation. We had a very small ceremony in the backyard of my mother’s house. We had a group come out and do the military honors for him. If he had gone through a trial and been convicted, he would have lost his pension from the military. I understand why some people don’t agree or understand what he did. But having been there, I know this was the greatest act of love somebody could possibly give. He was willing to give up his freedom, and the rest of his life, to stop my grandmother’s suffering.
To this date, his obituary that we wrote is online, as the Orlando Sentinel decided to make him the featured obituary that day. Unfortunately, people complained and they had to print a correction that goes with it, acknowledging that at the time of death, he was awaiting trial for first degree murder.
So if you ask me if I have ever thought about suicide, I would have to say it has crossed my mind. I don’t want anyone to be in the position I have seen so many people in. Our family has been stressed and pulled in different directions ever since. That said, I would not actually commit suicide so long as I have a living children, which I have three of us including a stepdaughter. I would never want them to think I gave up and left them abandoned.
But I have become very aware that there are many people who are living in constant agony, and there is no solution or cure to what they are suffering with. Nevertheless, our laws don’t permit legal voluntary euthanasia. It does not allow them to get help or even take their own lives in a dignified manner. I will never understand this.
Ironically, the term used when putting an animal down is “humane.” Letting them live while suffering is “inhumane.” Yet, it is illegal to “put down” a suffering human, even at their own request.
I will never find this OK. Now, as I deal with my own chronic illness, which could become terminal or instantly kill me at any moment, I find myself terrified of ending up in a similar place to my grandmother and my late husband. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. The illnesses or the family’s burden.
As I continue trying to raise awareness of both Alzheimer’s disease, and my own condition, EGPA vasculitis), I continue to follow legislation and groups trying to make voluntary euthanasia legal in the United States. If it’s good enough for our pets, because quality of life is important, why is it not good enough for us human animals? What are your thoughts, and why?
If you would like to contribute to the Alzheimer’s awareness walk I am doing with my daughter on December 11, 2021, it would be greatly appreciated!