‘Suicide’ implies irrationality, mental fragility; as opposed to ‘euthanasia’, which implies a deeply considered, mature and rational death.
I’m still angry. That my mother died by suicide. Left me, abandoned me, when she was elderly and I was in the thick of drowning in busy-ness as a middle-aged working mum — desperately trying to keep all the balls, somehow, in the air; and feeling like I was failing at everything.
My life in a nutshell a few years back: Four young kids. A full-on job as a novelist and columnist. A husband. A dog. And an elderly mum with chronic pain. Something had to give. And with my beautiful mother, Elayn Gemmell, it often felt like she came sixth in this very crammed life. Which shouldn’t have been the case.
Elayn had had painful feet for years, after a childhood of ballet classes and decades of wearing the most fashionable high heels. It all came back to haunt her in her seventies. A year before she died she had an operation to fix her foot agony. It made the situation worse, much worse.
Chronic pain vined its way through Elayn’s body, up into her groin and hips and lower back. By the end of her life my mother was curled like a comma around a walking stick and unable to drive — she had lost her independence. She was facing a future of pain, stuck in her flat and relying on all the madly busy people around her with their crazy-busy lives. She was terrified of ending up in a nursing home. Of losing control of her life.
Mum investigated the world of euthanasia. Found a community who listened to her within Dr Philip Nitschke’s Exit International organisation. Found older people, like herself, who she could have calm, rational conversations with about ending her life in a peaceful and dignified way. She wanted a mature, empowered, non-messy, serene death. A death of control.
So Elayn did it by the book. In fact, she had Dr Nitschke’s manual for serene dying, The Peaceful Pills Handbook, beside her as she methodically carried out the deed. She did not involve any of her three adult children in her euthanasia plans because she had done her research. If we were implicated in her dying we could have faced police investigations, fines and possible jail terms.
It was an utterly bleak and despairing and lonely death. Mum saw no way clear of her constant tormenter and bully — overwhelming chronic pain — and did not investigate any way to fight it besides taking pain killers. Opioids. To which she rapidly became addicted, and began doctor shopping to get. Their effectiveness wore off the more she took, demotivated her, and triggered depression.
If the euthanasia laws had been different in this country, Mum could have begun a conversation with professionals. They would have pointed her to different methods of chronic pain control. They would have given her peace of mind that people were listening to her euthanasia wishes. My mother could have passed away surrounded by her family, in a room brimming with love and gratitude for an extraordinary life.
Yet it was nothing like that. She found it too hard to have the difficult conversation with her kids; to explain that she was going to euthanise herself. And by doing what she did in utter secrecy, she broke her family. I can hardly even bring myself to say “suicide”. The word implies irrationality, mental fragility; as opposed to euthanasia, which implies a deeply considered, mature and rational death.
Elayn left no note, no explanation. Hence the feeling of anger and abandonment. I wrote a book to try investigate what she had done; to understand. It’s also about mothers and daughters and the tricky relationships they can have.
Elayn knew my Achilles heel and went for it, often. No one could crush me like she could. Her judgement felt at times like a blanket smothering my life. I could never live up to her expectations of the perfect daughter. Birthdays would pass without her contacting me because of some long forgotten slight; she deployed the weapon of silence and withholding to maximum effect. She felled me, often.
The manner of Elayn’s death reflected how she lived her life. By withdrawing, and retreating, and withholding. I asked many people afterwards if how she had died was an act empowerment or despair.
Many older respondents proclaimed it an act of great courage and enlightenment. Elayn was a fervent supporter of euthanasia and followed through on her interest in the world of Dr Philip Nitschke. She always wanted control over her own destiny. Of how she lived her life — and how she ended it. Yet that blazing willfulness over her suicide will stain me for the rest of my life. I will never, completely, recover. My children were deeply affected too and it’s hard to forgive my mum for scarring them also; they adored her.
Through all the applause for Elayn’s actions came a note from a younger woman who had tried to commit suicide. She had suffered crippling post-natal depression after the birth of her child. She took an overdose of pills and was found by her husband. The woman was furious at him.
She told me that for the suicidal person, they just want the pain to end. That’s all. They’re not thinking of the repercussions for those around them, of how it will affect their loved ones’ lives; they’re just thinking of themselves. Of having their overwhelming, bullying, tormenting pain stopped.
That, I suspect, is closer to any other truth with my mother.