Taking control of death

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A recent feature article in the Fairfax press delving into the circumstances behind the double suicide pact last October of a highly educated and ‘rational’ Melbourne couple, aged 87, has prompted an avalanche of commentary.  The response, writes Keryn Curtis, looks like a harbinger for rethinking assisted death in Australia. 

Anyone who reads a Fairfax newspaper is unlikely to have missed a very prominent and popular feature article, The Big Sleep, originally published Friday 15 January, in The Age, telling the story behind the double deaths of Peter and Pat Shaw last October in a suicide pact.

The cover image from Julia Medew's article, The Big Sleep.
The cover image from Julia Medew’s beautifully produced multimedia article, The Big Sleep. [Fairfax Media – Production/Design: Mark Stehle; Multimedia Editor, Felicity Lewis ]
Journalist Julia Medew’s intimate and extensive investigation of the reasons why the 87 year old couple decided to take their own lives in an openly planned, ‘rational’ event, has attracted an avalanche of commentary.

At the time of writing, the story’s post on The Age’s Facebook page the following day has been ‘liked’ by 2090 people, shared 902 times by readers and attracted 256 comments so far. This is nothing compared to the Sydney Morning Herald’s Facebook page where the same story was posted the day it was published.  Here it has been ‘liked’ by 13,761 people, shared 3,928 times on readers’ own Facebook profiles and attracted 1,124 000 comments (again, so far).

We can only speculate about the number of times that those original shared posts have themselves been annotated, liked and shared onwards by the vast network of Facebook users, both here and around the globe.

Overwhelming support

What is most surprising to me though is that the overwhelming majority of commentary around this story is supportive and positive.  I haven’t read every comment on the SMH’s or The Age’s Facebook pages but I HAVE scrolled through over 600 across the two posts, looking for evidence to the contrary.  There is very, VERY little.

Screen image from Medew's article, The Big Sleep showing Peter Shaw's suicide note (Fairfax)
Screen image taken from Medew’s article [Fairfax multi-media], The Big Sleep showing Peter Shaw’s suicide note.
This story has struck a chord.  Partly it is the time, sensitivity and warmth Julia Medew has given to the piece – exploring the back story, introducing the family, giving time to a range of voices, taking the reader, step by step, through the whole process of decision making and eventual action.  A good sized sub category of commentators praise the story for so beautifully enabling them to understand and support the Shaw’s individual decision and actions, despite their own personal religious convictions preventing them from ever doing the same themselves.

What is clear, in any event, is that there are a LOT of people in our community who not only support an individual’s right to make a rational life-ending decision and to take the subsequent action, but who express their own desire or intention to do the same or similar.

Credit must also go to the Fairfax multimedia designers for crafting the visual presentation and weaving the pictures and video so expertly into the story.

What is clear, in any event, is that there are a LOT of people in our community who not only support an individual’s right to make a rational life-ending decision and to take the subsequent action, but who express their own desire or intention to do the same or similar.

As an observer of this topic over the last decade or so, it feels to me as though the tide is really on the turn.  What seems to have changed is not so much the number of people who would like the choice of an assisted death (although that may be changing too) but a couple of other things: one, an increased willingness to speak out publicly in great numbers; and two, an emerging willingness on the part of those who would never personally make that choice, to accept the right of others in certain circumstances to have that choice.

‘Dignified’, ‘logical’, ‘sensible’ are words which recur across the comments.  Likewise, ‘respect’ and ‘choice’.

Stigma is waning

I do think the stigma around this issue is waning.  Futurists and ethicists and others have long predicted it would. Baby boomers have had their way in most things in life and that seems likely to extend to death.  What seems certain in any case, is that this issue ain’t going away anytime soon.

Have you read the story? You can read it here if you haven’t.  What do you think?

[STOP PRESS] Since this post was published, Julia Medew has published a follow-up article, similarly describing the extraordinary response to her article. And she quotes our story too!  Read her follow up story here.

If you need help or information about this issue you can call Lifeline 131 114 and beyondblue 1300 224 636


Discussion4 Comments

  1. Stunning yet simple. I just wish I could have known them. This is my wish as well.

    I had a close family friend in her 90 s who was, with it, to the last day, but full of pain and suffering, she begged me to help her go I sat with her as the tears rolled down her face begging me,, please help me. I could not of course and will live with this pain until its my turn

  2. I left a comment just now about an aged friend, however I have thought more about myself now and suggest to all those who have doubt about death to consider the experiences of people close to this issue and not just comment on a belief or personal theroy about prolonging life

    I lost an aged friend as I mentioned crying in pain, more recently my sister in law full of cancer at the age of 52, and now a young family member with brain damage due to an accident. I think I am qualified to know first hand how all this works.

    I am working on a document for my family to consider when its my time, but of course this document is only about sustaining life—–until we can change things.

  3. I have just finished reading the amazing story of Pat and Peter Shaw, obviously 2 people who did not want to go through the rigors of all age related health and well being issues which we all face on a daily basis. This issue will not go away and will only grow as the weakening body diminishes and the wish of an end grows daily.

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