Last week, a man travelled over 8,000 miles from Australia to Switzerland for help to kill himself.
Self-assisted suicide is not yet permitted in Australia and after years of campaigning for it to be on the same footing as the right to life in his home country, the man, regrettably, pursued his conviction where he could find it. That man was David Goodall.
David Goodall was not mad. And he was not really sick in the sense in which we speak of sickness for a man of his age. He was also not just your regular Joe, tired of a lonely, sedentary life, and desperate for attention.
He was an ecologist and botanist for many decades and taught in one of Australia’s most prestigious universities until he was fired and recalled after he protested discrimination on grounds of “ageism”.
After marking his 104th birthday in April, Goodall, classified in some circles not just as an old or younger old, but “older old”, decided he had had enough. It was time to die, rationally and on his chosen day. His wish was granted as he sang the last note of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
When a friend of mine and I first discussed the story, he asked if Goodall had children. I said he did and even grandchildren. One of them, Duncan, 36, who reportedly said he would be by his side when he passes away, said the family respected Goodall’s decision and described his grandfather as incredibly brave.
I knew why my friend asked, so there was no point asking him why. In most parts of Africa, it is a taboo to discuss death openly, much less to contemplate the involvement of family in hastening it.
My friend’s motive, I believe, was not only to judge Goodall but also to judge his family’s “complicity” in his death. In matters of life, and especially death, our hypocrisy hardly permits the removal of the moth in our own eyes.
But what is it that we’re afraid to confront. The missed opportunities? The potential pain of loss? The inevitability of death?
We worry a lot. What will significant – and insignificant – others say? What will be the impact on those left behind? Not many take time to listen to the older old near the end of their lives to find out the tensions and anxieties they’re going through, and if they’re still in fairly good health, to ask them what might be best for them in the end.
What our old and aged go through near the end, especially at the hands of families, only they can tell. Once when Goodall had a fall at home, he screamed and screamed for help and no one came for two days.
If you’re older old (95+) – frail and poor – family may discuss how much of a burden you have become behind your back; and you will not have died before you begin to see that they wish you dead, even though no one is saying it.
If you’re older old – frail and rich – your fortune may be slightly different. Family may complain behind your back but they might endure the inconvenience of nursing your tantrums and frailties while they prepare themselves for any advantages they may derive from your backyard when you’re gone.
The best we can do for the older old, especially towards the end, is to show them all the love and care we can, listen with more empathy and openness to what they have to say as the end inevitably draws near.
An in-depth interview of 25 elderly people in the Netherlands five years ago revealed five major emotions they often endure near the end: 1) a sense of aching loneliness 2) the pain of not mattering 3) the inability to express oneself 4) multidimensional tiredness, and 5) a sense of aversion towards feared dependence.
I learnt a very interesting lesson from my Great Aunt. She was well off by the standards of the time, still rode her bicycle until her twilight years and must have died at over 90.
The first time she told me that she had bought her coffin and kept it in the ceiling of her house, the sheer spookiness of it freaked me out, until she explained why.
Of course she had no plan to take her own life but she said, repeatedly, that she sensed that at her death, her family might be too busy squabbling over her possession to find a shroud for her remains.
Not that she had been unkind to them. Even though she had no children and was widowed at a relatively young age, she had brought up relatives as her own children, and a number of them were doing well.
She however said if she had learnt any lesson in her long, eventful life, it was the fact that people look after themselves first, however much they claim to love you.
She was no Goodall, but buying her own coffin was her desperate last act of defiance against significant and insignificant others who hardly contributed anything to bring her joy in life but who nonetheless think they have a right to decide how she goes.
In retrospect, I think she wanted to do something that might force, if not her family, then at least a Good Samaritan to give her remains, and perhaps her memory, some dignity and respect.
Traditional beliefs about life after death and foreign religious influences that tend to play an increasing role on choices, have no place for the right to die, however seemingly justified. But not making a decision – or letting God and family make it – does not necessarily guarantee a happier ending, nor does it secure any special place beyond the veil of death as some may think.
It has been reported, interestingly also last week, that in 27 years’ time, science might just be able to “freeze” the ageing process, and perhaps make death from the natural process of ageing optional. If I live till that time, when I would be 80, I don’t know what choice I would like to make: to die or to remain “young” forever?
But as more and more people live longer, healthier, more productive lives – lives often lived for family and significant others with little thought for their own comfort and wellbeing until the end is near – they will at some point have to confront the question of whether they also wish to surrender the choice of how they wish to live their final days.
If the younger generation is aggrieved that they’re being crushed by the burden of looking after the older old and the older old are lonely, forlorn and often depressed from feared dependence, why should a final act of defiance, including rational exit at a ripe old age, be a problem?
For Goodall, it was “rational suicide”; for my Great Aunt, it was a coffin in her ceiling. Both acts, at different levels, were symbols of defiance. What’s wrong with that?
– Ishiekwene is the managing director/editor-in-chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network