Death with dignity

  • Watching The World
  • Sunday, 30 Sep 2018

I AM an atheist. I have mentioned it before but I am going to bring it up again because it’s relevant to this discussion.

You see, because while I am an atheist, I too loved my grandmothers.

I bring it up because it helped me free myself from the trappings of having my thoughts continually shaped by interpretations of how others said we should live our lives centuries ago. And one of the most controversial debates surrounds that of death with dignity.

The last time my Patti (Tamil grandmother) met my Amache (Malayalee grandmother), it was 2008 and I decided to bring one to see the other because they hadn’t seen each other in 7 years, and they were both more than 85 years old.

I must say that even as they met one was struggling to talk and the other was struggling to hear. Talking in Tamil, at one point they turned to me to help smoothen the conversation. That itself was a sure sign that things had changed because at an earlier point in time, both would have known that their grandson’s command of the Tamil language is next to useless.

My grandmothers were formidable women. Born in India and brought to Malaysia as teenage brides, they lived through great trauma during the Japanese occupation and the Communist emergency. But now the same remarkable spirit of survival that had carried them through so much difficulty was keeping them alive in diminished circumstances. The reason they hadn’t met for seven years was that one grandmother had been bedridden for that period.

At different times in their final days, I was to make the same speech to both grandmothers.

“Everything the family has now, all the success of your children and grandchildren, is because of you,” I told them. “In our toughest times, your strength brought us through. You have done your duty and so much more. Don’t worry about us. We love you. You can leave in peace,” I told my Patti before she passed away in October 2010.

I said the same thing to my Amache before her death in Feb 2012.

But I won’t lie to you, there is also an element of pain in the decline and helplessness of a loved one. In their final days, I saw my grandmothers struggle. I had actually seen my baby son struggle for his life when he was born with serious heart complications (which eventually required five heart surgeries from 1997 to 2011). We fought hard and somehow he has gone from strength to strength and made it to adulthood. The decline of my grandmothers was very different. At some point we had to acknowledge that they were on an irreversible downward slide. There was no more quality of life, just hanging on helplessly in pain.

When I was a child, I told my Amache that I wanted her to live to be 100. “Don’t wish that for me,” she said. “Pray for me that I have a quick death. I don’t want to be bedridden. I don’t want it to be painful, I don’t want to be a burden.” She was very clear and articulate about it, but that didn’t mean that she got her wish. I remember the last year of her life as a painful experience, and I wish it had not been.

What happened to my loved ones, made me think twice about assisted death. When I was in college in the US, a Dr Jack Kevorkian became famous for assisting terminally patients to commit suicide. Assisting dying is now legal in various forms in Holland, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Canada, Colombia and Switzerland. It’s something I do think about as I occasionally see people my age and not much older stricken with terminal illness. What would I do if such a scenario befell me?

About a dozen years ago, a man committed suicide outside our office block by jumping from a window. I heard his dying scream then and can still hear it now. I was told that he had a fatal diagnosis and decided to take that step. I did not understand then but I think I do now.

I would like to emphasise that I am not depressed or crying out for help. I really just would like to be prepared if the time comes. I recall reading about British businessman Jeremy Spector who had an inoperable tumour and killed himself at an assisted dying clinic in Switzerland. He filmed his final days and explained why he chose to die with dignity. I would like to have that option if ever the time comes.

My colleague Tan Yi Liang wrote about it three years ago, and medical and legal practitioners were generally negative, preferring to stick with the status quo. I get the feeling there are many who even place the principle of upholding religious teachings over that of quality of life. There certainly are times when I feel like a revolutionary thinker surrounded by reactionaries, but none of these thoughts are new. Anyone who has any experience in palliative care of a suffering patient, would have had the thought. And maybe that’s it. Maybe I just would like to ask you to think.

  • News editor Martin Vengadesan is pro-choice when it comes to euthanasia.
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