The third issue of our new all-colour magazine is proving popular with our supporters. Time to share some snippets with all our online visitors and subscribers!
Our cover story looked at the ancient Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut who had some very creative ideas about about death and dying, as well as embodying traditional ideas about persistence of identity over time and creating a positive attitude both to the dying process and to using mortality as an inspiration in life.
Many of the ancient Egyptian ideas about life and death are misrepresented, even by some Egyptologists, as ‘primitive’ or lacking in philosophy. The great French Egyptologist, Professor Claude Traunecker, suggested that these seemingly animalistic or unnecessarily complex religions were in fact allegory for reality. Key to their understanding is the two souls (each individual Egyptian had several), the ‘ka’ that stayed as the spirit of life and the ‘ba’ that contained the immortal essence.
We printed a warning about fake Nembutal, a hard-to-obtain sleeping drug, when it came to our attention that a number of people have parted with thousands of pounds or dollars to criminals offering it online. Some of the websites pose as right-to-die or pro-euthanasia sites’, even imitating the look of original sites in order to fleece people of their savings. Most customers never see anything for the money. No right-to-die society anywhere in the world sells Nembutal. (Purchasing it is also illegal.)
Dying is an art as well as a science. More than just the method you choose; or even that chooses you. It’s always good to have options. The time, the place, things that might affect your choice – such as mental or physical agility – or the degree of privacy (or lack of it!). We can’t guarantee your life but we try to explore every possible option, whether it is living longer or moving on from this life in a way that suits you best, and in a way that preserves as much dignity as possible. A unique thing about Exit is all our research is fully referenced.* You may read different ‘opinions’ from people with a high profile or claiming to be experts, but do they back up the evidence in a scholarly manner? (This means, do they provide exact references to the professional literature that shows peer-reviewed evidence as to how a particular drug tends to work in one way not in another way). We do this so we can be challenged and so science can move forward in a safe and responsible way. (If that sounds a bit too fussy, remember it is your life that is at stake!)
We printed a careful account of a failed suicide that someone had sent us, together with an extensive commentary. Failures are uncommon: but they are something from which we can learn. There are many ways of ending one’s life that might work. You may “know of someone who…” But what about the one that went wrong? We believe people learn best from honesty and accurate reporting. A failure might occur, for instance due to faulty materials, or last minute panic. Or combination drugs that worked in many cases but not in a particular individual. Scientific knowledge is your friend! We also reprinted a substantial paper written a little while ago on carbon monoxide* (from car exhausts) and how it used to be (fairly, only fairly) reliable in the days before catalytic converters but not now. We added an update on the Japanese craze of using charcoal burners with plusses and minuses and sources of further information.
We include further advice on advance directives (living wills). Not just on making one but on something we feel is very important if you possibly can, and that is talking to someone close to you about your wishes and who you trust to be supportive. Remember… you can refuse treatment even if you don’t have an Advance Directive (or Living Will) but it may help to have one. Be sure that you have listened to and understood all the implications, proposed treatments and medical outcomes before deciding. A general statement of wishes may be helpful in deciding what treatments you wish to refuse but if it is to have legal force it must be specific about which treatments are being refused and in what circumstances. In practice, it is very helpful if the person most likely to be contacted in an emergency is familiar with and supportive of your living will and also if you have discussed it with them in ordinary language. Talk about the sort of outcomes you would find acceptable or unacceptable. Without getting morbid about it chat about possibly scenarios. Just saying, “I wouldn’t want to be a vegetable” is not very helpful guidance, but if the medical team are honestly trying to respect your wishes (a legal requirement) then, in the midst of quite technical medical choices and difficult percentage-risks of different treatment options, finding out what is important to you can be a guide. Things like the degree of mental impairment you might consider acceptable or unacceptable, the degree of physical mobility and dexterity and so on.
A letter to the bereaved is something most of us will have to write at one time or another. Do you maybe have ‘role models’ to bring to mind in such a situation? A surprising, and rather touching one we came across was no less than the ground-breaking physicist, Albert Einstein. In addition to discoveries which changed our understanding of time and fostered a common language of science, Einstein was also a person of enormous wisdom, empathy, and emotional intelligence. He wrote breathtaking love letters, counselled his young son on the secret to learning anything, assured a little girl who wanted to be a scientist but feared her gender would hold her back, and shared the secret of his genius with an inquisitive colleague. He corresponded with Freud on violence, peace, and human nature. But one of his most poignant and humane letters was addressed to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, with whom he had cultivated a warm friendship. After the sudden death of her husband, King Albert, followed closely by the death of her daughter-in-law, Einstein reached out to offer thoughtful and tender solace to his bereaved friend … This excerpt is from a beautiful memoir by American author author Krista Tippett called, Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit …
Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you.
And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.
Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation — a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.
We also gave readers articles by someone caring for a partner with a terminal illness and an anthropologist’s very human perspective into a different way of looking at death, a mention of our newly-released Conference Report Booklet, a section on inspirational quotes, tips on methods published in our books, and of course a good dash of humour as we have to remember to smile! Finally here’s a famous story you may know about form the history lessons; but history never quite brings out the human emotions of great life events very well. For that, we have somehow to “fill in the gaps”, to imagine, to use that imagination in a realistic way and perhaps learn from the experience.
The story of George
a dramatisation by Paula Singleton
His wife was holding his hand. She listened to the gurgle of his breathing. His eyes opened and caught hers, held them for a moment. She watched his forehead crease with the effort; his skin seemed waxy and strange. He had not been able to speak for some days but now his mouth fell open. He looked from his wife to their son who stood at her side.
“Goodbye” The word broke the thick silence between breaths. His eyelids slid down very slowly. The lines of effort faded. Yet still the terrible noise came and went. Came. Went.
Mary looked at the doctor.
“Dawson, he’s been ill for so many years.” Mary addressed the doctor who sat at the other side of the dark bed. “We do not wish him to have his life prolonged. He is near the end, is he not?”
Dawson took note of George’s pulse, weak against his own strong fingers.
“Yes ma’am, l believe so.”
He had been physician to George for many years, through good times and bad.
“Sometimes it gets on one’s nerves, I can tell you Dawson! ” A shadow of a smile passed over the doctor’s face as George’s voice rang out clear and humorous in his mind. “Sometimes these people seem to think one is made of stone and can go on for ever…”
Some hours passed. Edward or the doctor or Mary would shift a little every now and then. Only George remained motionless but for the flicker of the bedclothes with each struggle slower than the one before.
Mary still felt George ’s hand clammy in hers.
“How can he keep breathing?” she asked. “He is so weak, Dawson. How much longer?”
“I’m afraid that although he is in deathly coma, it could
be several hours before he breathes his last, ma’am. Every case is different but I have seen patients go on for many more hours before the mechanical end.”
He watched her hair bow towards the bed, her son’s knuckles white against her trembling shoulder. George’s lips fluttered as another breath limped from the tired lungs. The doctor produced a syringe and gently pressed it into George ’s neck.
“What are you doing?” George’s son whispered.
“It’s morphia and cocaine. His heartbeat will just stop. He will feel nothing.”
Mary’s head snapped up. She regarded Dawson, eyes wide.
“That’s not what we meant, Dawson.”
There was a long rattle, then George’s hand went limp in hers. A sudden peace trembled in his face. Silence.
Mary cried out. She looked at the doctor, then back to her husband. He had suffered for twenty years.
“We will say no more of this.” She released George’s hand and drew herself up slowly. “The King is dead,” she said. “Long live the King.”
Sources used by the author in the above dramatic reconstruction of the death of King George V: 1. The Independent 28th November 1986; 2. Wintle J, Kenin R, Dictionary of Biographical Quotation. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1978.
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*Casual readers please note: Exit is a long-standing and responsible organisation, founded in 1980 to research and produce self-euthanasia literature. We do not publish advice on how to end your life online, or by email or in comments to the Blog.