I miss my wife every day, but knowing she died with dignity brings me great solace
Re Polly Toynbee’s article (Today, 17 people will likely die in unimaginable pain. Here’s how you can help stop that, 19 January), in 2019, my wife ended her life with the help of Dignitas. She was 71, and this concluded a plan she first hatched in 2017, having learned that she had 18 months to live.
My wife was self-aware and strong-willed. Her take was that she could not influence the disease and its progress, but she could control the remainder of her life, including the manner of her inevitable death, and so she contacted Dignitas to arrange an assisted suicide.
Her explanation was succinct. She said she had two options. The first was to have an uncomfortable, protracted death complete with drips, wires, catheters and “nurses wiping my arse”. The second was to have a painless assisted suicide at the time of her choosing. It was, she told me, a “no-brainer”.
She declined life-extending therapies, her refusal based upon the experience of friends who had. Her summing up of chemo was, “I don’t want to live longer just to feel fucking awful”.
We continued to live our lives as we always had until her condition began to deteriorate, and then, having fixed a date with Dignitas, my wife cleared the decks. She sorted her jewellery, each piece bagged with a message of love to be posted to her friends and relatives after her departure. Her clothes she carefully folded and bagged, and I delivered them to charity shops. Everything was put in proper order.
At Dignitas, she drank her cup of hemlock, went to sleep in less than a minute, and passed away peacefully about 15 minutes later in my embrace.
I miss her and will always do so, but my priceless solace is knowing that my wife died as she wished: calmly, painlessly, and with me kissing and cuddling her.
I will always celebrate her determination and bravery.
Name and address supplied
• Thank you to Polly Toynbee for bringing attention to the fact that many people die in great pain. Some take their own lives due to the unbearable pain they are suffering. We live in a world where it is assumed that pain can be “managed”. This is not always the case.
My bright, active, 78-year-old husband was struck down by chronic spinal stenosis, and within two months he found the pain quite unbearable. He was prescribed increasingly strong painkillers, which dulled the pain just a little but also dulled his beautiful, bright mind. This highly intelligent man had no life; he could no longer read, watch television or carry out the simplest of tasks. He found it impossible to balance treating the pain with holding on to his mental faculties – he was either in agony or found his ability to think and reason entirely compromised.
He spoke often of taking his own life. He tried once, and succeeded the second time. This was not how he should have died. He should have had the right to die with dignity.
• While welcoming Polly Toynbee’s article on assisted dying, I strongly disagree with her assessment of the Dignitas clinic as being depressing. After a diagnosis of an aggressive form of motor neurone disease, my daughter and I accompanied my husband to Dignitas, where he was treated humanely and with enormous compassion at all stages; his death was peaceful and dignified. What was actually depressing was that a seriously ill man had to travel over a thousand miles to avoid the indignity and distress that would have been inevitable during the final stages of his disease. For me and my daughter, it was beyond depressing to fly back home without our husband and father, facing the possibility of a police investigation.
A change in the law to allow terminally ill people the choice of a compassionate and dignified death should be a matter of urgency for our legislators.
Name and address supplied
• Polly Toynbee states that each year “up to an estimated 6,500 terminally ill people try to take their own lives in often horribly bungled ways”. This may be true, but it is not true, as she implies, that the situation would be better if we repealed the current law against “encouraging or assisting” suicide.
There is evidence on this. There were four studies on the impact of assisted dying laws on suicide rates published in peer review journals last year. None showed any beneficial effect. The study published in the European Economic Review found that introducing physician-assisted suicide in the US was associated with an increase in unassisted suicide of 6% overall, but as much as 13% among women. The apparent gender effect of assisted suicide laws was also reflected in other studies and is a particular concern.
We do have a problem with suicide among people with serious health conditions. We need greater support for older people and for those with disabilities. What we do not need is a change in the law which, all the evidence suggests, would only make this worse. The current law helps prevent suicide and should not be abandoned.
Prof David Albert Jones
Director, Anscombe Bioethics Centre, Oxford; professor of bioethics, St Mary’s University, Twickenham
Prof David Paton
Chair of industrial economics, Nottingham University Business School
• Polly Toynbee is right to highlight the protracted, avoidable suffering that our lack of an assisted dying law causes for many people – including families and friends. We also must not forget those with incurable conditions who suffer unbearably. Many of your readers will recall the brave Tony Nicklinson, with locked-in syndrome, who simply wanted help to die when and where he chose.
We respect a person’s right to ask for the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment, which can involve the removal of feeding and other tubes (as happened to my mother-in-law), knowing they will die. But we characterise that in law as “an omission”. By contrast, many assisted dying laws require self-administration by the patient, with the option of receiving it intravenously. The health professional’s acts may therefore be only to write a prescription and be present to ensure no complications. To borrow from Lord Mustill in the 1993 Tony Bland case, “the ethical status of the two courses of action is for all relevant purposes indistinguishable”.
The inquiry by the health and social care select committee is to be welcomed, but it will serve a purpose only if it recommends a way forward from the current impasse, preferably a citizens’ assembly along the lines of that currently running in France – with a commitment to follow through. The role of politicians is surely to address, not duck, difficult questions like assisted dying.
Chair, My Death, My Decision
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.