How would you feel — and what would you do — if a friend wanted your support as they ended their life? Here, one woman relates how she dealt with just such a request

 


Jane's last chance to make a choice

Cleone Gardner, May 1996

In September 1994 Jane made her final choice.

I'm calling her Jane but it isn't actually her real name. I had known her for 18 years and the essential background is that in 1978 she had been involved in an accident in which she lost her right arm above her elbow. She had two children and a step-son, and within a year or two she had divorced her husband from a very unhappy situation and looked after her own two children. She made a very courageous recovery from that accident, and taught herself to do everything that was necessary to run her home, even to hang wallpaper with one hand, as she put it, "using her head."

She learned how to knit by tucking the needle under the stump and making the left hand do everything She was hugely courageous and very determined.

But sadly, two years after that accident, the early symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis began to appear. She became gradually more disabled but struggled on until her children left school and she then decided to move to a ground floor flat near me because in many ways, I was a sort of "mother figure" to her and we wanted to be near so I could help.

As time went by she became more and more disabled and was totally wheelchair-bound.

Five years before she died she came to the local theatre to see the play "Whose Life is it Anyway?" and this started her thinking very seriously about the position she might well be in in the time ahead. She found out about the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, discussed its aims and principles with all her friends, with her children and with her GP, and decided to join.

Life got more and more difficult for her. On Good Friday in 1993, I went round to see her — I had a key to the flat — and was horrified to find her in a very bewildered state and terribly distraught. She had tried to end her life and knew she hadn't succeeded. Her quality of life had got very limited and she felt she could not go on. She had saved up what medication she could, and taken it, but from the 'Final Exit' book, which she had got from America, had discovered that a plastic bag might also help. So she had put a plastic bag over her head. But what appears to have happened is that in the last minute while she was still just conscious, panic set in and she had torn the plastic bag. Pills on their own were not enough.

I spent 24 hours with her trying to calm her down and help her to cope.

And, of course she couldn't try again because she'd not got any medication left.

As the condition progressed, her eyesight and speech were affected. There were times when I might ring her up and I knew she had picked up the phone but she couldn't speak. I would go round immediately. She gradually became totally incontinent and had a young carer who used to go in every morning to get her up and help her shower. She became very fond of this lass.

When I got home one evening my husband gave me a message from Jane asking me to go and see her about nine o'clock. This wasn't unusual. But when I got there I knew immediately this was it. She was already in bed, she had two strands of elastic round her neck, on the bed were two plastic bags and a pil1owcase which would go over the top, and if she tore anything it would be that. Beside her was a pot of yoghurt in which she had crushed up the medication she had managed to save — mostly temazepan.

Her GP, although he knew her wishes, had consistently refused to give her any medication that could make her an addict, nothing containing morphia or anything like that, so she was constantly in pain. He would never give her enough to ease the pain. The local pain clinic gave her a TENS machine, which helped a little, but not enough

Her answer to the GP was that she would rather be a pain-free addict than in constant pain!

And this day was the day she hid decided she could go on no longer. Her quality of life was too poor. All the things she used to do, like making delightful little clothes for her step-son's children using an electric sewing machine and all kinds of devices, had become impossible. Her hand was not reliable enough to take a plate of food out of the microwave. She had a tilting stand on which she coould put a kettle to pour into a mug, but the hand would no longer pick that mug up reliably enough to transfer it to the tray of her wheelchair. So she ended up having to .sit in the kitchen with a straw in a mug, and drink it there.

A group of us, friends who were supporting her, got together and produced a series of meals for her. But she felt she couldn't accept this. There was a bit of her that did not want to be totally dependent on others. We had enquired about admission to the local hospice but they said no, she didn't qualify, not even for respite care We had also enquired about a Cheshire Home and Jane went to see this home but decided that it didn't give her sufficient space, and once there she knew she wouldn't be able to do anything about ending her life when she felt it had got to a desperate point. So she decided to stay where she was in her flat.

By this time her son who had been living with her had got married and left, and she was on her own. That didn't worry her that much: at least it gave her her own space.

So when I got there she said she had asked me to come so that she could give me a list of all the people she wanted me to telephone after the event. She also wanted to be sure that I was the person who would find her the next morning, not her family, and she had cancelled her young carer, saying that she had a friend staying.

"Do I just walk out and leave her?"
I then thought: "Well, do I just walk out and leave her to get on with it?" I felt I couldn't. I asked her if she would like me to stay, and she said only if I felt I could, and on condition I did absolutely nothing to help her. She had written a statement which was on the bedside table saying what she was going to do and that no-one was going to help her. So I stayed. We chatted and we ended up having a hug and saying goodbye.

She sat up in bed with the pot of yoghurt between her knees and spooned it into her mouth. She said how terribly bitter it tasted to start with. It got better towards the bottom of the pot. She then put that down. She had also got a glass of whisky and she had in advance taken some travel sickness pills to try to prevent herself from being sick.

She then picked up the first plastic bag. It was agony to sit there watching her struggling to tuck this in all the way round with this very difficult hand. But she managed. And she finally put the second one over and then the pillowcase, and then laid back, on the pillows. very peaceful, absolutely sure that this was what she wanted.

Her children had all accepted this. They had been that day and had lunch with her and said goodbye, though they' didn't know when it was going to happen.

I sat with her and just held her hand. The worst part of the whole thing was that at about half past eleven, her breathing became extremely noisy, very laboured, as she suffocated. I was terrified that the people in the flat above would hear and come down and want to help. Fortunately they didn't. At quarter to twelve, I knew that she had slipped away.

I went home. As you can imagine, I didn't sleep much that night.

I told my husband what had happened and he accepted it too. He knew her very well.

In the morning, I went in and found her, exactly as I had left her. I didn't touch a thing. I went straight to the phone and rang Jane's GP, and then her children.

The GP came, and the Coroner's officer. I described finding her that morning and didn't say anything else. Eventually Jane was taken to the funeral directors. Three weeks went by, and the funeral directors kept telling us that they had not got permission to organise the funeral. This was very hard to explain to family and friends.

Then the police came to my door. Would I come to the police station for questioning? Three people had reported me as having aided and abetted.

I was shocked. They told me who two of the people were, but wouldn't tell me the third. At the police station I was questioned in a tiny room with two police officers, with everything being recorded. It was very probing, intensive questioning. They showed me two written statements made by people I knew, who ran a group to provide holidays for disabled people. They do a wonderful job and I had been, as my friend's carer, on one or two of these holidays.

"I thought I had done nothing wrong"
I wasn't allowed to contact them and I was quite devastated that they should do this. I found it hard to believe. After two hours of questioning I said I felt I needed a solicitor. I had, quite wrongly, thought that if I had been there and did nothing, I had done nothing wrong. But that didn't prove to be the case. Just to be there was wrong. So they stopped the interview, and I contacted a local solicitor and it was agreed that we should go back to the police station on the Monday.

As my luck would have it, my youngest daughter was expecting a baby and went into labour on the Sunday night. Her husband is not a driver and I took them to the hospital, and was up all night. The next morning at the police station, my first comment was that I had been up all night and was very tired, so excuse me if I am not quite so quick on the ball: I had been at the birth of my eighth grandchild. The police's immediate comment, which was the only glint of humour in the whole affair was: 'Don't let them call him Jason. That is a prescription to be a criminal." And I said: "Even more so because his surname is Crook!"

And that was the beginning of the next session of gruelling questioning. Then all the tapes and papers, including a delightful letter from Jane's three children backing me up, went to the Crown Prosecution Service, and I had to wait two weeks before I heard that they said there was no case to prosecute, to my relief.

We were finally given permission to hold the funeral, which was seven weeks after she had died. You can imagine the problem of explaining that to her quite big circle of friends and family.

Then. we had the inquest. And as, inevitably there was a reporter from the local paper, the next issue of the paper had the story all over the front page. But actually I was surprised how sympathetic it was. Many people stopped me in the town — because I wasn't going to not go into the town where I had lived for 60 years — but I had not a word of criticism from anyone. In fact. I had quite a lot of compliments.

No Regrets
I didn't feel ashamed of what I had done. I was there as a friend, and I had thought about it very hard beforehand. I still do not regret having sat with her, because for Jane it was a very peaceful end. As she said, her quality of life was just no longer tolerable.

At the inquest her GP did not appear. but he had put in a written statement. That was my first and only clue as to who had told the police, because he wrote that in his opinion, he did not believe that Jane could have done this unaided. I later discovered that the two people who had put in written statements had not approached the police; instead they had been approached by the police and I suspect at the suggestion of the GP. It has left me with a very difficult feeling about the police because they clearly told me quite a number of lies, but they were so smarmy and nice all the time.

Jane would have been very distraught if she had realised what would have happened. I'm very glad she didn't, and I would have done it again.

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