April 9, 2012. … David Brooks wrote a touching column in the New York Times last week about an old man, with the surprisingly fitting name of Charles Darwin Snelling, who killed himself and his wife after six years of taking care of her. She had Alzheimer’s Disease.
In the past month or so the Times treated its readers to similar stories with headlines like “Push for the Right to Die Grows in the Netherlands,” “How About a ‘Do Not Treat’ List?”, “British Stroke Victim Wins Right to Seek Legal Euthanasia,” and even one hitting our dogs: “New Treatments to Save a Pet, but Questions About the Costs.” Readers have also enjoyed morbid stories about doctors in Louisiana getting prosecuted for letting some patients die or even killing them during Katrina, horrible descriptions of people’s prolonged deaths, and plenty of advice on how to use end-of-life planning kits from Choices and Compassion, which used to be the Hemlock Society. This is all from the news staff that promoted Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s “work” in the 1990s. (By the way, Dr. Kevorkian died of liver cancer in June 2011, after demanding every possible treatment for himself at age 83 years old.)
Often the readers of the Times show more insight, sensitivity and complexity in their view of life than the Times staff itself. The Brooks column about the Alzheimer’s murder/suicide was no exception. Here are some of their readers’ views from the Letters to the Editors today.
Letters Re: A Caregiver’s Decision to End Two Lives
A professor wrote that the murder-suicide might have been the result of a “fragmented health care system inadequate to provide the support that the Snellings needed.”
A man from Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, said he has been questioning some of the suicides lately that result from desperate situations in which people are not thinking clearly, and certainly not clearly enough to make such a permanent, irreversible decision. ”I question whether there can truly be a “decision” in these situations,” he says. “What is pulling the strings: a true decision-making power, connected to the depths of oneself, or forceful impulses that, in David Brooks’ words, “foreclose future thinking”?
A male reader of West Shokan, NY, suggests that Mr. Snelling could have used a care facility and simply visited his sick wife instead of doing 24/7 care himself. “My mother had Alzheimer’s and lived in a nursing home for the last two and a half years of her life,” he writes. “Though my mother didn’t recognize me, I wondered how she felt in herself. Perhaps she experienced a richness I couldn’t perceive; perhaps her sense of self — her soul — was even more expansive or satisfying than my own.
“Maybe Mr. Snelling had stopped believing that his wife still possessed an inner life, or thought her pain greater than any rewards of living. But how could he be sure?”
Finally, a reader from Vermont writes that he truly identifies with Mr. Snelling because he too had cared for a wife with Alzheimer’s Disease. “His response to the challenge so closely paralleled my own. I understood so well where he was coming from. But the end of his story I cannot fathom. Taking the life of someone whose love was surely gifted to me by some power beyond my knowing would be unthinkable.”