The Selfish Suicide

By Yuill, Kevin | The Spectator, December 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Selfish Suicide


Yuill, Kevin, The Spectator


A FEW years ago, my friend Collin disappeared from the small Canadian town where we had both grown up. We had played on the same ice-hockey team, attended the same schools and played together often when we were young. I had long looked up to him. He was a little older, a better hockey player and very popular. When we left school we drifted apart, as school-friends often do, but remained within the same social circles. I was 18 when he left suddenly that weekend. I had seen him withdrawing money at the bank on the Friday; he looked at me with his trademark quizzical smile and rushed off. On Saturday, his mother rang to see if he had stayed the night at our house, and he didn't turn up at a social event that evening. On Monday, a mutual friend called to say that Collin had been found dead in a hotel room in a nearby American city. He had blown his brains out with a pistol. He left a one-word note: 'Sorry'.

This event cast a deep pall over the town and marked the end of my childhood. For weeks and months afterwards, my friends and I could talk of nothing else. We would stay up till the early hours, drinking coffee until our hands shook before moving on to whisky. Why had he done it? Could any of us have done anything to prevent it? Had we failed him? In the end, we decided that Collin did not have the courage to deal with his problems and lacked respect for those he left behind. Had he thought of how his parents, who aged visibly in the following weeks, would feel? His mother stopped talking for three months, either unwilling or unable to speak. His father, with whom I worked, took six months off, spending nearly all his time staring out of the window, barely responding when I passed the house and waved. Had Collin thought of his older brother, who spent all of his time at the local bar, perhaps to avoid going home? Had he imagined the impact his death would have on his 14year-old sister, who would run sobbing from her classroom to her home, collapse on to her brother's pillow and cry for hours? Even those who barely knew him talked in whispers and shook their heads when his family's name was mentioned. Coffin rejected not just those around him but also the glorious possibilities of the future, the awe and wonderment of life's experiences. As a friend put it at the time, `Collin pissed all over the rest of us.' I still feel some sort of anger mixed with sadness when I remember him.

The anger I feel when I hear the arguments of campaigners for the legalisation of euthanasia, seemingly encouraged by legalisation of the practice in Holland last week, may have some cathartic quality. But there is little doubt that the campaign for legalised euthanasia is built on the same casual disrespect for human life, the same `drop-out' mentality, that gripped Collin.

At first glance, these two aspects of suicide couldn't be more different. On the surface, legalising euthanasia - or assisted suicide - seems like a rational and even humane idea. After all, why shouldn't someone terminally ill and in desperate pain be assisted in cutting that pain short by ending his or her life before nature takes its course? Why should doctors be under threat of prosecution for taking what are, after all, humane actions? Shouldn't the whole process be brought out into the open? Why should religious groups be allowed to block what appears to be a fundamental civil right? These are the questions asked by the Labour MP Joe Ashton and others campaigning for liberalisation of current law. Ashton complained in an interview last week on Radio Four that Catholic and Muslim constituents were blocking reform of British laws preventing euthanasia.

But opposition comes from other directions, too. Disabled groups such as `Not Dead Yet' in the United States object that promoting the option of death for those with less `quality of life' would demoralise and cheapen the lives of disabled people struggling against similar conditions. Those involved with the hospice movement also protest that it is possible to alleviate any physical pain with modern drugs. …

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