Of all the ways you can try to end your life when it’s a calm and rational decision, helium surely ranks as one of the simplest. But simple things don’t always go to plan – as 79-year-old William Stanton (MBE) discovered when he and his wife attempted a joint suicide. While his wife Angela (74) succeeded, he would not have his wish to be to be buried alongside Angela in a woodland site on Salisbury Plain. Not for another few months – not until police and a rare form of bone cancer had finished with him. Angela died last September. William last January. A post-mortem. Then the coroner finally finished this week.
They intended it to be straightforward. They researched it. Joked about. Rehearsed it. They wrote goodbye letters urging people not to waste time being miserable. Then invented an excuse for a neighbour to come in shortly after the deed. But the deed did not go according to plan. Angela died: William did not.
Double suicides are not as infrequent as one might think. In Japan, they often involve lovers. In the Western world, it is usually older couples, one or both of whom are
extremely ill. One has to be so careful not to romanticise it: but is it so hard to understand? The long-devoted and elderly couple who seek an exit to this world in such a way that, for each of them, the last sight will be of the other, the last words one hears, the last touch of a hand, the warmth of the other’s breath. Is that so very, very bad?
In some ways we afford more sympathy to genuine lovers in the world of fiction. Whether it be Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake or Tristan and Isolde. The reality of such a thing in the here and now may be societal disapproval, secrecy to avoid police or psychiatric interference. Questions about ‘motives.’ Hurtful accusations if anyone knows beforehand. Even more hurtful if something goes wrong and one has to live with the burden, on top of illness, on top of social isolation. Perhaps on top of being led away to a cell like a common criminal.
All the evidence points to the Stantons’ deep and loving relationship, and how the joint suicide was planned freely by both of them. But the law is the law. Shortly afterwards, a spokesman for Avon and Somerset police said: “The body of an elderly woman was found in her home in Westbury-sub-Mendip after someone visiting the address discovered her dead in her bedroom. A man aged 79 was arrested on suspicion of her murder at the address and taken into custody.” Although he was released on bail, he would die before the case was resolved.
Exit’s first concern is the human tragedy. The emotional strain and suffering forced on Mr Stanton on top the physical burden of his illness. The added strain for his surviving family and his friends. If there was a small consolation to the unwelcome glare of media attention, maybe it would have been stronger attempts to ensure he got the best palliative care. But he had complained that the pills made him, “unbearably lethargic.”
But as a Society specialising in ‘self-deliverance’ – as responsibly as we know how – Exit is also horrified that someone in this day and age can so easily get such a crucial operation so badly wrong. Dr William Stanton was an intelligent man. A well-published scientist. Together with his wife, he overcame some of the common if minor hurdles. But his apparent failure must be a warning to others that, if you try this, you need more than common sense and a good brain. Helium today is perhaps the most common method of peaceful, rational suicide. Yet in Exit workshops, our members have found a host of small but potentially catastrophic details that need special care. In the absence of proper legislation on assistance in dying, we publish careful guidance.Much of the advice from the Internet and elsewhere is very poor. Once it has been handed down a few times, there are disasters in the making, and death can be anything but painless and dignified. A well-meaning Dutch organisation tampered with the recipes from our 1993 drugs booklet and distressing deaths resulted. More recently, a small British pro-euthanasia group recommended that people just starved themselves to death – the families were awful witnesses to a harrowing end. Exit does not encourage or discourage suicide. If anyone reading this is suffering from depression, we urge you to click on the link in the right hand column to find out how to talk things over with people who can listen and give you that breathing space – they are called the Samaritans. But if someone is determinedly going to end their own life, we very much hope that they will not simply cause themself more pain and suffering in the process, or succeed only in injuring themself further. Out of common humanity, we would prefer that they know how to avoid further suffering.
“We thought, we have had a wonderful life and it was clearly coming to an end. Much better to go out on a high. Why let it be spoilt by all the pains of old age? Anyone sensible would say the same.” The Stantons were clear-minded and of one accord. Like Arthur Koestler and his wife before them, or Sir Edward and Lady Downes, they simply wanted to be together at the end of a long life and leave the stage with a joint farewell to the world.
Their daughter Jennifer gave a statement to the inquest saying that her mother had said, “Don’t be surprised if you get a call and we are both gone.” A post-mortem examination carried out by Dr Hugh White revealed that Angela’s cause of death was suffocation. Coroner Mr Williams said that a police investigation determined the couple were of sound mind and had jointly entered into a joint suicide pact. He concluded: “I accept Dr Stanton’s evidence as to his wife’s intent to end her life with him and I’m satisfied that there are no possible other conclusions.”
Terminally ill doctor survived suicide pact (Mail Online 21 Aug 2010)
Tragedy of couple in suicide pact as husband survived (Mirror 20 Aug 2010)
Botched suicide pact husband dies in his sleep (This is Somerset 2 Feb 2010)
Disabled geologist arrested for wife’s murder (Telegraph 7 Oct 2009)
William Stanton: I botched our suicide pact (Times 1 Nov 2009)
Some studies on joint suicide:
Suicide pacts and the internet (BMJ)
Double suicide attempt (Singapore Med J)
Coincident deaths: double suicide or murder-suicide? (Medicine, Science and the Law)