Tuesday 20 March 2018

Working it out: Grown-up debate about suicide needed

John Masterson

FEW human situations held my attention as much last year as the plight of Marie Fleming as she took her case to the courts to ask to be allowed to end her life, at a time of her choosing, with the confidence that this was not going to result in a criminal prosecution for her partner, Tom Curran, or anyone who might assist her.

It was very clear for all to see that Marie was a highly intelligent person, making an informed decision, with the support of a loving family who would have wished more than anything that she could return to health but knew that was not a possibility.

I have met Tom a number of times as he is a great supporter of The Carers Association. Having been a family carer since Marie became ill, he has a very full understanding of the issues. He is typical of family carers who do what needs to be done when a loved one needs help -- and do so with a loving heart.

As people will know, Marie died towards the end of 2013. I am sure her family were torn between thankfulness that her suffering was over and the dreadful grief of losing a much-loved person.

I never met Marie, but I suspect she would have been relieved that the course she had wished for under certain circumstances did not need to be activated.

As a country, we do not yet have the maturity to deal with a situation like Marie's. Many other terminally ill people are today facing situations where they may wish to end their lives in safety and love but will not be allowed to.

At the other end of the spectrum, we are grappling with an intolerable rise in the number of young people who are taking their own lives. I recently heard someone use the phrase "commit suicide". They were smartly corrected and told that the phrase was "died by suicide". I wondered would this correctness make a great difference to a family who was trying to gain some understanding of what had just happened with a mixture of grief, anger and helplessness.

It was explained to me that the modern phrase showed compassion for the bereaved as they tried to come to terms with their loss. I am wondering if our compassion is now tying us in knots and producing some unwelcome results.

I remember when the word "commit" was the one in regular use and the act itself was both a sin and a crime. There was the dread for people about being buried in unconsecrated ground. And, while I have no recollection of a prosecution of anyone who attempted suicide, there was clear disapproval. There were a lot fewer people, particularly young people, ending their lives.

Society could not extend compassion to Marie in any meaningful way because we are so tied up with the fear of abuse and religious notions as to what life is. I fail to see why it is not possible to design a system where terminally ill people could shorten their life by a small amount, in well-specified circumstances, should they so desire. I certainly hope the option is open to me when my time comes.

Our compassion to all touched by suicide in the young age group seems, to me, to have had the unintended result of making the course of action more acceptable. People now see suicide as an option in a way that was unthinkable a generation ago.

The most effective reduction in suicide was brought about by a young Donal Walsh last year as he faced his own death. He did not think his peers should ever have that option. "I feel angry that these people choose to take their lives, to ruin their families and to leave behind a mess that no one can clean up," were his precise words. The figures in Kerry have reduced dramatically.

We have compassion and anger issues to sort out -- and this young man has given one part of the answer.

Irish Independent

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