Monday, March 23, 2009

A time to die

A time to die
Tue, Mar 24, 2009
The Sunday Times

By Anthony Yeo, Life Lines

I was one of the speakers at a forum on euthanasia held by the Medical Directorate of the National University of Singapore recently.

The controversy surrounding this issue raises various dilemmas, mostly of a moral nature. When one considers the reasons of those who prefer to be assisted in their death, we must appreciate the complexity of the matter.

More than two years ago, I had an intense conversation with a colleague and friend who was suffering from nose cancer.

She was expecting to die in November of the year of her diagnosis. When November came, she was in excruciating pain while expecting her impending death.

That did not happen as she battled her pain and discomfort, wondering when her suffering would end. She even prayed to God for relief from this life so she could join her Maker.

Our conversation covered many aspects of her life, including the legacy she thought she was leaving behind and her readiness to depart from this earth. Somehow she decided she was more than ready to die.

But providence seemed to decide otherwise and she continued in her agony, struggling to make sense of a life that she had released psychologically and spiritually.

One day she peered out the door of her eight-storey apartment and said: 'I wish I have the strength to get over the ledge and end my life. If only you could help me with it.'

We then sat in sombre silence, she placid and composed, I reeling in pain that I could not relieve her suffering that lasted for another five months before she finally breathed her last.

As I pondered over her extended time on earth, filled with nothing but pain and agony, I thought she was feeling a grievous loss of control over her predicament.

There was nothing she could do except be attended to by her maid, get shuttled to and from hospital, and wake each day to contend with what seemed to be meaningless suffering for her.

She must have decided that a possible way to assert control was to find a way to hasten her death. If only she could have someone who could help her to make that happen.

I suppose there might be others who think like her. They must be wishing that they could be given the freedom to do so.

Her situation has challenged my thinking about euthanasia and to consider the possibility that life need not continue if there is no more reason to do so.

If I were to be in a similar predicament as my friend, I would like to go rather than wait for a painful and inevitable death.

Meanwhile, I want to live each day meaningfully and learn not to wish for undue extension of life.

I want to be at peace and grateful for the life that I have had. May I learn to live so that I may learn to die.

Anthony Yeo, a consultant therapist at the Counselling and Care Centre, will answer questions from readers every fortnight. Write to with Life Lines in the subject line.

This story was first published in thesundaytimes.

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