We need to talk about death

Terry Pratchett really got me this week.

Maybe I’m just too young, but watching him speak personally and emotionally, yet so pragmatically, about legalising assisted death in the Dimbleby lecture clutched my guts.

As a country we seem pretty confused over what we think about the issue. On the one hand we have a mother committed of murder and cries to protect the vulnerable, on the other we have Debbie Purdy, Dignitas and a mother let off.

Sir Pratchett spoke about watching his father die, his own “slow moving car crash” into Alzheimer’s and how knowing that he could end his life when he wanted would make “every day as precious as a million pounds”. He wants a tribunal system whereby “the facts” could be sorted before death, and people could come away with assurance that friends or relatives which assisted them would not be prosecuted. He was reasonable and practical and very convincing.

The only other time I’ve felt confronted with assisted death like this was in the Science Museum. If you walk into the ‘making the modern world’ gallery from the back of the museum there’s a small display just on the right, tucked next to the frame of the door. It contains one of the few commercial machines made for assisted death. Inside a large suitcase is a computer, attached to this a wire and tube complex, finally ending in a small syringe and needle. You would insert the needle and then the computer would take you through a series of questions. If satisfied with your answers, it would release a deadly dose through the needle.

Introducing the lecture, Sir Pratchett said he was “here to talk about death” and talked about the casual off-handedness with which people avoided the subject. But it looks like talking about death is something we’ll have to do a lot more of.

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3 Responses to “We need to talk about death”


  1. 1 Mickey Schafer February 13, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    Hello Harriet.

    Interesting topic here…my mother is a strong believer in DNR: she’d have it tattooed to her forehead if it wouldn’t look so funny. And she’s made it very clear that if by some chance, some poor EMT or ER doc fails to honor the Do Not Resuscitate rule and leaves her heart beating via machine, that I am the Executor of her Will (ha ha) — in other words, it’s my job to pull the plug. Why? Because, she explained, she trusts me to do it — she knows that I can, and suspects my brother cannot (he’s left to manage the estate — hardly a fair allotment of tasks!;-)).

    Being Catholic, my mother also believes suicide is wrong, but does not consider either a DNR order or assisted death as suicide or murder. She seemed to firm up in this decision following the deaths of a couple of friends who chose fast morphine over slow cancer; as a nurse, my mother does not believe in extended suffering.

    I have found that by and large, these kinds of conversations make people very uncomfortable. I was not a happy camper when mother and I first had this conversation! I also recognized that she was right: I would pull the plug because she asked. Like her, I believe that people have the right to define quality and quantity of life for themselves, to come to their own decisions regarding that balance. We are allowed to choose to die for our country; we should be allowed to choose our course with respect to terminal illness. But the question of who administers our choice is still tricky, especially if the patient wishes to hang on as long as possible, past the point of their own physical ability, to when someone else will have to administer the final dose.

  2. 2 Lab Rat February 14, 2010 at 9:24 am

    Unfortunately I didn’t get to watch that talk, but I read about it in the paper the next day and ended it in tears (in the middle of the pathology cafeteria, which was embaressing). It was pretty much a transcript, and it increased my admiration for Terry Pratchett about a hundred fold.

  3. 3 harrietvickers February 15, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Cheers for your comments. I was shocked at how much it upset me and I ended up with wet cheeks too! It did make me feel uncomfortable to begin with as well, but by the end it seemed very natural and needed to be talking about it.

    I’ve always been in favour of assisted death in principle, although I’ve never – yet, luckily – had a relative or friend in that situation. The shock of watching the lecture, and seeing the commercial machine, made me realise firstly that I’m a bit naive to the realities of it, and secondly how I’m not used to this kind of viewpoint: what it’s ACTUALLY LIKE to have these kinds of conditions, and what we can do to deal with the (currently) inevitable consequences.

    Seems the legalisation arguement will only get bigger and more pressing. Hearing Terry Pratchett made me think how valuable discussing it in this way could be for helping us decide how we want to deal with it.


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