Belfast Telegraph

Jenny's story demands we open debate on euthanasia

Euthanasia is now rarely not in the news. I've written of it before and make no apology for doing so again. This week in a moving, honest and compelling interview with this paper, Co Down woman Jenny Grainger told of her mother Barbara's wish to end her life rather than face the imprisonment of motor neurone disease - and of Jenny's and her family's 'assistance' in the 75-year-old's death.

The sorry, sad state of Barbara Grainger's ending of her own life is not that she did it but rather the manner in which she was forced to do so. A manner which left her dangling - because of self-enforced starvation - for 24 days between this and the next world.

She was left in a limbo of sorts, because as a society we refuse to address fully and coherently the subject of the inalienable right of a person who has lived a life - to fulfillment in their eyes - but who is now terminally ill and wants to end that life.

The inalienable right of those who cannot afford - or do not wish - to get on a plane to Switzerland where assisted suicide is lawful.

We are not talking here of people who are somewhat off-centre in their emotional or mental wellbeing, or a young person who, mistakenly, wishes to somehow immortalise themselves.

The debate, which latest polls show 74% of UK adults wish to open, is about allowing someone to make choices. Were it ever to get properly started, it would be a deep debate, as there are many aspects to this profound issue. The morality, the dignity, the enormity of such a final step and - just as importantly - the legal situation for family who may be called upon to assist.

In life, death is the only certainty. We come into the world and we go out. It's no great mystery.

And yet it's the final taboo. We seldom talk about dying or death, never mind the right of someone to choose their time of going.

That 74% of UK adults wish to bring this taboo into the open is a good thing. When the novelist Nuala O'Faolain went on national radio to discuss her imminent death from cancer, long-time friend and civil rights activist Nell McCafferty applauded her, saying we needed to talk about death and the manner in which we die, given the drawn-out and painful death of McCafferty's own mother. "I don't want to have to go into a hospice and start negotiating with them over the time I have left,'' she told the Belfast Telegraph at the time.

My late father-in-law was larger than life, a generous, sociable and kind-hearted man. He lived a good life until Alzheimer's struck him down in his early 60s. He was gone from us within a year - unknown, unknowing - but it took another four for him to die. It was a pitiful sight to watch and took a tremendous toll on his wife and family.

There were times in the last year or months when I visited him alone in his special hospital unit. They were very short visits. One-sided. It troubled me deeply as I gazed at this man - this one-time life and soul of the party -who was no longer there. And there were times when I wanted to place a pillow gently and lovingly over his face.

My own dear mother had cancer for the last 15 years of her life, but it was manageable and relatively painless and she lived a full life with the help of medication and the love of my dad. Then, in 2000, when my dad died suddenly, my mother developed terminal secondary cancer. But she was still sound in mind, if not body.

In the 10th week after my father's fatal heart attack, on one of my daily visits to the hospital, my mother's doctor called me aside and informed me that she had told him she no longer wished to take her medicine. She was insistent: "Keep it for younger people.''

There were tears as the young doctor said to me: "There is pain now and there's going to be a lot more. We can keep her on the feeds but there is nothing else I can do. It is just a matter of time. I am sorry."

We sat either side of her bed, the good doctor and I, and listened to my mother's wishes. She had had a great life, a life in which she loved and was loved in return. A full life. She was 82. Now, she wanted to hang on to that last vestige of old age - dignity.

Some hours later the drips and pumps were removed. Some hours later she went into a coma. Four days later she slipped away, with her dignity for company.

It was a sunny Saturday in late September of the Millennium year when my mother moved on. I do not know the time of my going but, if I am lucky enough to live into my 80s or indeed 90s and the prospect of losing my dignity to pain and pumps stares me in the face, I know what I want.

Hopefully, by then, we will have grown up enough to stop skirting around the most life-changing moment in our lives after our birth.

Our death - and the manner of our going.

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