On the night of February 6, my husband and I boarded a plane from New York to Zurich, Switzerland. It would be our last trip together and the first trip we’d taken in many years. In many ways, it felt like so many vacations we’d taken over our 52 years together: making the plans, booking the flight, finding a hotel—and a good restaurant to eat our last meal. I even joked that he had to be dying for us to fly business class. But this last trip was no joking matter.
We were going to Switzerland for my husband to die, a decision that we had come to together after months and years. A decision that forced us to wrestle with our fears, weigh our options, agonize about how and when to tell our children, family and close friends, a decision that ultimately liberated us from six years of diminishing pleasure, increased dependency and mounting pain.
We reluctantly approached a physician friend to see if he could help us obtain barbiturates—Seconal or Nembutal—but were told that if he could get them he would save them for himself. We tried to gather oxycodone and Percocet from friends who’d recently had hip replacements but had no idea how much to take. The number of failed or botched suicide attempts by overdose runs in the thousands. Scoring fentanyl in the Bronx was rejected because I feared it would be my luck to be snared by an undercover cop. My husband even considered slitting his wrists, but he couldn’t hold a straight razor nor ease himself into a warm bath. Voluntary not eating or drinking (VSED) was repugnant to us both—although we considered it a back-up if all else failed. Then we learned about Dignitas, a nonprofit organization in Switzerland that assists people like us who can’t be helped in the United States.
It wasn’t an easy process or uncomplicated decision. I had moments of guilt that I wasn’t throwing myself across the grave, begging him to change his mind. He suffered his own guilt seeing how his physical deterioration and growing dependency was affecting my happiness. We continued to live a life full of family and friends, great meals, visits to museums and Central Park, arguments about politics, books, and movies. But as his pain mounted and kept us both up at night, our conversations about our children and all the good times were replaced by darker thoughts of wanting it all to end. What we both felt in our own way was trapped—he by his body and me by his and therefore my shrinking world. It was a long, torturous and careful process with formidable obstacles. When we finally found a way out, we felt enormous relief. It took us five years to go through with it, not because we thought my husband would get better but because we weren’t ready to let go. When we were ready, our decision was based on love, not desperation, rooted in respect and mutual support—which pretty much describes our 50-year-marriage. Six days after my husband wrote this essay, he was dead.
In 1970 I broke my neck in a body-surfing accident. My spinal cord was nearly severed and I was paralyzed from my chest to my toes. I was 36 years old and engaged to be married. I was told that I would never walk again, would never be able to have children and wouldn’t live past 50. I refused to accept this prognosis, and with the support, love, and understanding of my fiancée and intensive physical therapy, learned to walk, married, fathered two daughters and am the grandfather of three. The doctors who cared for me are long dead. As I write this I am 87 years old.
After a successful career, a long and happy marriage, and a deeply satisfying life, the repercussions of my accident and the challenges of aging finally caught up with me. After several falls, I was confined to a wheelchair. I began to experience serious pain at night that prevented me from sleeping. I could no longer transfer from my wheelchair to my bed or onto the toilet without help. I couldn’t shower or dress myself. I who fought his entire life to be independent could no longer take care of myself and required aides and my wife to assist me in everyday living.
In the past two years, I saw my body collapse around my brain—my hands grow so weak that I had difficulty writing my name, lifting a fork, or holding a razor. I was terrified that I would soon have to be fed. The quality of my life was quickly diminishing and I feared if I waited too long, I would no long be able to control my life or death.
For a second time, I refused to accept the inevitable—a protracted and painful death—and, with the patient counsel and support of my wife of 50 years, chose to commit suicide.
But how? Even in the 10 states, including Oregon, Maine, Colorado, New Jersey, and Hawaii, where assisted suicide is legal, you have to have a diagnosis of a terminal illness (only six months to live) and be a resident of that state.
No doctor would help me obtain pills. Every prescription is registered on the Internet and highly restricted. My primary physician refused to give me much more than extra-strength Tylenol. Illicit drugs are too risky and nearly impossible to procure. I followed leads through The Peaceful Pill Handbook and Final Exit. Some directed me to addresses in China and Mexico that seemed sketchy and to which I could not travel. I did not know how to get on the Dark Web. I did not know a “friendly” anesthesiologist or veterinarian who readily use lethal drugs in their practices. Not that they would have helped me if I asked.
I investigated VSED, voluntary stopping of eating and drinking, which is legal in the US. But since I did not have a terminal diagnosis, I had to find a doctor who would be willing to prescribe hospice as I couldn’t tolerate this method of dying without morphine or anti-anxiety medication. Again, my primary care doctor refused to commit to ordering hospice when the time came (the reason I left his practice). After another long search, my wife’s psychiatrist referred me to a sympathetic doctor who agreed to order hospice if I decided to stop eating and drinking. In the end, I could not face a prolonged (sometimes up to three weeks) death where I literally wasted away.
I then discovered Dignitas, an organization in Switzerland whose motto and mission is “To live with dignity. To die with dignity.” Unlike the States, Dignitas provides assisted/accompanied suicide to individuals who are not necessarily terminal but suffering from severe and debilitating conditions. It is not an easy nor inexpensive process. First, I had to submit a formal request including a letter explaining why I wished to die, medical reports showing diagnosis and treatments tried, in-depth medical reports, and establish that I was neither depressed nor out of my mind. Once I received a green light, I had to provide a birth certificate, a marriage certificate, proof of domicile and dental records. And of course, I would have to travel to Switzerland, where I would be interviewed by a medical doctor on two separate occasions to confirm my identity and establish that my decision to die was made of my own free will. At any time, I was free to change my mind, but if I went through with the “accompaniment,” it would be swift and painless.
The cost including airfare, taxis, two nights in a hotel, meals, etc. is in the neighborhood of $15,000. I am fortunate to be able to afford this expense. Not everyone can.
I have had to make a choice between two impossible choices—to continue declining or to die. My choice to “exit,” leaving behind a beloved family and special friends, is my choice and mine alone. I have come to this choice with a mixture of agony and relief. However, I would have much preferred to die peacefully in my own bed surrounded by family. I should not have had to travel close to 4,000 miles to die in a foreign country.
Like abortion, the right to die is a polarizing issue in the United States. It runs counter to many religious beliefs and raises complicated ethical questions. But for me, it is not a question of religion or ethics. It’s a question of respect and free will. If I were an aging dog, no longer able to walk, control his bodily functions and in great pain, I would be “put to sleep.”
There’s something wrong when a dog is treated more humanely than a human being. Sadly, that is the case in the United States today.
On February 9, my husband died peacefully and painlessly in my arms with a daughter by his side. A few moments before he fell asleep for the last time, he joyfully professed his appreciation for his life, his love for me, his children, grandchildren, friends and work. Then he yawned a giant yawn, almost like a baby. It was a gentle death. A dignified death. His choice to determine how and when he wanted to die and my choice to support him was our last gift of love to each other.