Planning one’s death at the end of a long illustrious life

| July 16, 2009 | 11 Replies

Conductor Edward Downes and his wife Joan decided to end their lives on their own terms:

He spent his life conducting world-renowned orchestras, but was almost blind and growing deaf – the music he loved increasingly out of reach. His wife of 54 years had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. So Edward and Joan Downes decided to die together.

Downes – Sir Edward since he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991 – and his wife ended their lives last week at a Zurich clinic run by the assisted suicide group Dignitas. They drank a small amount of clear liquid and died hand-in-hand, their two adult children by their side. He was 85 and she was 74.

Many people feel that suicide necessarily cheapens one’s life.   In many cases, I don’t agree.  I do think that the choice of when and how to die belongs to each person individually, as long as the decision was not made impulsively or under the influence.

If the day comes when I decide that I can’t bear the pain, or that I no longer find joy in my life, I would hope that I wouldn’t need to travel all the way to Switzerland because inter-meddlers think they know better than me about the meaning of my own life.

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Category: American Culture, Energy, Law, Meaning of Life, Media, Medicine, Saint Louis, Science, scientific method

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    My parents were members of The Hemlock Society. But my dad died from a bicycle accident at 78, and my mother is dying from Emphysema and COPD. She's 2 weeks shy of 83 and still mostly lucid. She isn't interested in quitting any sooner than she has to. But she has filed DNI and DNR directives.

    I think the whole western suicide taboo may be a result of a class of religions that glorified the afterlife too much. If being dead is so great, why not kill myself? Oh, that nice afterlife is available to absolutely anyone, except for suicides. Well, maybe I'll keep suffering for as long as necessary to win the good afterlife. After all, if Jesus suffered for a couple of days thousands of years ago to win this for me, surely I can endure a few more years of wasting away in chronic pain. This is living?

  2. Ebonmuse says:

    What a sorrowful, beautiful story. When my time comes, I hope to go with as much dignity and love as these two. And did you catch the last passage of the story?

    Edward and Joan Downes are survived by their children and grandchildren. The family said the couple had no religious beliefs, and there would be no funeral.

    There's something inexpressibly poignant about two atheists ending their lives together.

  3. Rick Massey says:

    We should see more stories like this. In the State of Missouri, we as attorneys are forced to draft healthcare directives for people who don't want to prolong their suffering in such a manner that will induce death by starvation – for no better reason than that other people are using the legislature to enforce their personal religious belief that God wants you to die from lack of food and water instead of by some more humane and compassionate manner. This short-sighted and cruel alternative is imposed on everyone. Why can’t all Americans have the freedom to make the most important decisions about their own lives without interference from outsiders?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Rick: I couldn't agree more. Well put. We treat our dying pets much more humanely than we treat human beings who are in excruciating terminal pain. What would most people think of someone who forced his cancer-ridden pet dog to starve to death, refusing to put it down quickly and humanely with an injection?

  4. Alison says:

    My sentiments exactly, Erich. As someone who has been a lifelong pet owner and also worked in cat rescue, I have seen animals in agony from terminal illnesses and other conditions, and have made the decision to euthanize before they reach that stage when one of these is diagnosed. (Often there are distinctive signs that precede the beginning of the agonizing part, I still tried to wait as long as I could whenever possible.)

    As a person who has outlived people who were felled by inevitably terminal illness, I've seen the same kind of agony as I've seen in the animals, heard people beg to die, heard doctors deny desperate requests for additional pain relief for asinine reasons ("We can't give you more of that, because it's a controlled dangerous substance with a strong risk of addiction" absolutely blew me away. Usually it's denied because the dosage required to eliminate the pain would also be fatal, and that's crazy stupid all by itself.)

    When it was time for a family pet to be put down, we would all go to the vet together. The vet would administer the first shot, an anesthetic that would induce sleep gently over the course of about 5 minutes. During that time, we could pet, cuddle, and speak endearments to him or her – comforting ourselves as well as our pet. I think this was the most wonderful part of this story; they had their two adult children at their sides. How great that they were able to be together and comfort one another as the end came peacefully and painlessly. This should be the norm in this country. It should not be available only to those who can afford to fly themselves and their loved ones overseas.

  5. I can't imagine what it would be like to be at the point where death is preferable to life but I do hope that if it happens to me that someone will treat me like a dog.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Well put, Mike. Maybe I should concoct a legal form to help out. It would go something like this:

      "I'm dying of cancer. I'm in constant unbearable pain. I've carefully thought about my condition for many weeks. I hereby request that I be treated like a dog and that I not be starved to death, which is the traditional way to treat terminally ill people here in the United States. Signed, __________

  6. Mindy Carney says:

    And if you did that, Erich, would it be enforceable? I'm all for it – like Alison, I have had the loving experience of putting a pet down peacefully. Hard as it is to say goodbye, even to an animal, it is certainly preferable to watching a loved one suffer. When the doctors have determined that nothing but an inevitable death will ease the suffering, I firmly believe the patient should be allowed to choose to be euthanized. Makes no sense at all that we work to prolong a life that is no longer being lived, so to speak, when the owner of that life wants it to end.

  7. Becky says:

    I am not for suicide, but after reading, "Die$mart" by Kathy Lane, I have done a better job at planning my estate for when that day comes (to protect my family). I have also put together a living will so that if my family members are ever presented with a difficult situation, they won't have to make any decisions- my wishes will be clear.

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