When to say ‘goodbye’ should be our choice

Incurably ill individuals should be free to discuss openly their wishes about dying, writes Rabbi Danny Rich

July 03, 2020 11:07

My great uncle Paul was born in 1901 in Warsaw, an only sibling to his five-year-old sister, who would become my maternal grandmother. Interviewed at age 90, he recalled the mounted soldiers throwing furniture from the first floor of the family’s home and warning them never to return. Destined for America, Paul remembered arriving as a six- or seven-year-old at the docks in the UK and being cheated of all their possessions — the family’s inauspicious start in a new land not of their choice but which was to become home.

Paul studied hard and joined the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of the Second World War. Stationed in the Far East, as a squadron leader he accepted a sword of surrender from Captain Nakadia of the Imperial 5th Air Division in Malaya. Demobbed to study engineering at London University, Paul eventually owned a successful agency importing radio parts.

While at 80 years old he was determined to live until 90, he thought at 90 that “enough was enough” — a sentiment he repeated to several people, including his local-authority home carers. In the last couple of years, while sharp of mind, Paul was becoming frailer and just before his 93 birthday he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He asked a relative to organise an early birthday tea, and, in the presence of many family members, he informed them he had had a great life, but was now saying “goodbye”. The next day he was found dead in a cold bath and the coroner recorded “drowning: suicide”.

Most of those at Paul’s “goodbye” gathering were undoubtedly intellectually of the view that he should do whatever he judged best. After about one and a half hours, all but one relative had departed. Caring and highly intelligent, that relative had been an advocate of the legislation to permit assisted dying, a cause of which I am a strong supporter. Some years later, he confirmed to me what several of us had suspected. Although he told the coroner he had “left Paul sitting in his bedroom”, he had actually assisted him in getting into the bath. We had some discussion about this but I was in no doubt he was telling me in the context of my being a congregational rabbi and after the fact.

My decision to reveal publicly this incident of 26 years ago has been prompted by the publication of Last Rights: The Case for Assisted Dying by Sarah Wootton and Lloyd Riley of Dignity in Dying, a slim volume with ironically life-enhancing potential. The book tells of cases where seriously ill people have been forced to end their lives earlier than they might have done had there been the opportunity for an honest conversation about how they wished to die and without fear that their loved ones would face an inappropriate and distressing criminal investigation.

That these cases are still occurring with heart-breaking frequency more than a quarter of a century on from my great uncle’s death is shameful. The UK’s ban on assisted dying is clearly not working, and I add my voice to a growing number calling for an inquiry into the full impact of the absence of permissive legislation.

I have long been an advocate of the right of incurably ill individuals, subject to appropriate safeguards, to decide the manner and timing of their own deaths, and Last Rights calls for a modest change in the law, apparently supported by the vast majority of people in this country, both those of religious faith and those not.

Because someone took a risk, my great uncle was able to choose the time of his death. I am aware other families have similar secrets and I urge them to tell their stories to our parliamentarians, so that in the UK dying, rather like birth, becomes a topic of conversation before it happens and occurs with minimum suffering and maximum possible choice.

Rabbi Danny Rich is a vice president and former senior rabbi of Liberal Judaism. He is a magistrate and a prison and hospital chaplain

July 03, 2020 11:07

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