The views expressed in this column are those solely of the author
My spouse and I have an ongoing conversation- really more of an argument- about one end of life scenario. I have stated on several occasions that if I were struck by a disease with less than 50 percent chance of survival and a prolonged and painful course of treatment, then I would choose not to receive treatment. Instead, if I were able, I would do a lot of traveling, visiting with friends, and then die comfortably.
I say this as a healthy, able-bodied person. He is quick to point out that I cannot know how I would feel if I were ever in such a situation. I grant him that. However, I have seen enough people undergoing such treatment, talked to enough families about dying, have a strong sense of the distribution of societal resources and have no dependents. I also have good insurance, good social support, and an above average understanding of the culture and language of medicine.
I do not bring this up because of the recent suicide of Robin Williams, one that may have been spurred by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Recently, I read the story of Gillian Bennett, a retired clinical psychotherapist and wife of a philosopher. At age 85, she took her own life rather than suffer the increasing indignities of dementia. On a sunny day before noon in British Columbia, Bennett and her husband brought a foam mattress to a hillside with a beautiful view. Laying next to her husband, Bennett ingested whiskey and Nembutal and drifted off to permanent sleep. Bennett made her case for her suicide on a website she created, deadatnoon.com.
On this website, Bennett discusses her experience of living with dementia for three years, the options for future care, the cost to her family and society, the effect of the disease on her family, and the societal burdens of an increasingly aged population. She urges everyone above the age of 50 to complete a “living will.” Bennett says that making such a document should be compulsory. She also says she believes the “medical profession, the Law, and the Church will challenge and fight any transformative change.”
Bennett ends her four-page note with loving thoughts about her life and family. She details how she plans to die and states her husband had no part in her death (an important point guarding the illegality of assisting suicide in her province). Although she would have loved to have had her children with her when she dies, she has ordered them far away- so no legal suspicion should fall upon them. Her family created a video after her death, telling this story and discussing their mother’s good death.
There are many who say Bennett was a coward, selfish, depressed and made a decision that should be made only by a deity. Criticisms will also be directed toward her husband and family. I think she was brave. This was not a spur-of-the-moment choice. She thought through her quality of life, her future life, its effects on those around her, and made the choice that was right for her. This does not mean that people should be encouraged to make a choice of rational suicide when faced with terminal illness. This does not mean that as a society, we should put people in a position in which they feel suicide is the best (or only) option due to a lack of available, affordable care. This does not mean that everyone in the same position should make this decision. This does mean it was the right decision for Bennett.
End of life decisions are intimate and personal. They should be made in long conversations with loved ones and should be consistent with beliefs and life choices. They should not be coerced. Many of us will have the unfortunate reality of having to face similar decisions. The thought processes of my current able-bodied, able-minded self may change. Perhaps these suicides are a call to change the way we view coping with tragic disease, or a call to change how we treat those faced with horrible choices. I believe rational suicide can be an acceptable alternative for those like Bennett who are not clinically depressed, who had carefully considered choices for a long period of time, and who had the backing of family. A good death was one on her terms, on her timeline, by her hand, and while holding the hand of the love of her life.