My Take on Assisted Suicide

Dmitri Prieto

Terry Pratchett, narrator of “Choosing to Die.”

HAVANA TIMES — I read a post by a fellow Havana Times blogger dealing with what the author refers to as euthanasia and what I prefer to call assisted suicide.

I had also seen the documentary she mentions, (Choosing to Die) aired by Cuba’s Sunday night show Pasaje a lo Desconocido (“Journey Into the Unknown”), dealing with a Swiss entity that promotes “death with dignity.” The program included interviews with clients of this company (not all of them directly request assistance in dying; some individuals approach the company to know if they’re eligible and find out about their conditions, so as to consider whether to request the service offered by the firm in the future).

During the discussion before the screening, the expert invited on the show explained the difference between euthanasia (the situation in which medical doctors administer the deadly substance) and assisted suicide (the situation in which the patient consumes the toxic substance, provided by a specialist). He explained that both are prohibited in Cuba and are considered forms of homicide.

I lost both my mother and father, who died of cancer. I recall their last days well and I don’t think I’ll ever forget them. It feels as though it was yesterday. I recall how they both clung to a life they loved. They didn’t ask for death, knowing that death was close, and that enduring their last, angst-ridden moments was going to be difficult. I remember their tears…

I have a friend whose mother has Alzheimer’s. I have been witness to the unease and sorrow this girl (a happy person who loves life) expresses when she speaks of her mother. I imagine how hard it must be for her…

I also have a friend whose grandmother passed away, suffering from senile dementia. Her last words – the words she repeated for weeks before ceasing to speak altogether the last months of her life – were “I want to die.”

I am not, therefore, in any position to judge the will and the wishes of others. What’s more, I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I said that all of us, at a difficult or depressing moment in our lives, have contemplated suicide…

The big problem is that, in contrast to traditional societies, modernity did not elaborate any “protocol” or “methodology” to come to terms with the fact of dying. Modern mortuary rituals tend to be ridiculous.

Next to the dying, we prefer not to mention the issue. Deaths are treated as numbers, symbols or euphemisms, be them mass or individual deaths. Talking about dying fills us with angst, and only particularly courageous people fully embrace that mortality that we all know characterizes each and every one of us – almost always through a spiritual stance.

We tend to surround death with silence, imagining that life is everything, the absolute value, and that its periphery simply does not exist or constitutes a disagreeable or uncomfortable impediment…

When I was a Law student, they explained to us that, when it came to inheritances, the last will was the one that counted. A very juridical point of view, but, beyond all formalisms, that kind of thinking makes me terribly uncomfortable, particularly when I am faced with the documentary’s powerful images.

I can’t forget the elderly gentleman in the documentary who asked for water after ingesting the poison. Before, they had shown us how the people from the company explained to him how the barbiturates would make him uncomfortably thirsty, and how he was not supposed to drink any water after ingesting the poison. If he did, the poison would not take effect and the entire effort would prove in vain.

Falling asleep, that bearded man asked for water. His wife lovingly denied the dying man his last request: “You know you can’t, they explained it to you, remember, honey?”

What if he was having second thoughts? What if it wasn’t a mere physiological effect, what if he had become aware of the spiritual meaning of the parting and, quite simply, recalling that the water would keep him alive, was trying to undo the lethal process?

We will never know…

2 thoughts on “My Take on Assisted Suicide

  • I have had a sister and many friends die slowly of various cancers .
    In all cases they chose not to kill themselves and clung to life as better than the end which for them ( all atheists ) meant no afterlife.
    It is somewhat strange that the religious are the ones who forbid mercy killings even though death means an afterlife in those beliefs and reunification with deceased loved ones . Go figure.
    I recently had to put down two stray cats I had adopted due to incurable problems .
    I also took a neighbor’s cat in to be euthanized because it was too emotional a loss for her.
    In the case of pets, we owners have the responsibility of saying when the pets will die , when their suffering is obvious and is causing us distress.
    We then do the humane thing and put them down gently.
    We should certainly do no less for humans that we love and who wish to end their suffering.
    Since euthanasia is not legal in most places, the advice of nurses in my family is to save your pain medications (opiates) until you have a fatal dose in a pile and swallow them all with a couple of stiff alcoholic drinks.
    And…as the spiritual song goes:
    “If we never meet again this side of heaven,
    I will see you on that beautiful shore. “

  • So what is your take, Dimitri? You seem to be ambivilant. Conflicted. Everyone has to make his or her own decision, unless unlucky enough be suddenly struck with stroke or other onslaught into a vegetative state.
    I thought I would have more time with my best friend–at least another year, maybe two. Returning to The City after a month’s stay with us in the country, however, he could take the pain no longer and took an overdose. Another friend gave instructions for no more transfers from nursing home to hospital; as the end approached, his doctor mercifully limited the struggle, providing enough opiates to close down his vitals. (This happens more often than we think; most doctors are compassionate, and won’t prolong suffering.)

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