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Ann Landers Letter Prompts Deluge of Mail

August 1998

The power of choice in end-of-life decisions can not be over emphasized. Knowing options and [receiving] support are important for the family as well as the patient. Keep up the good work.

E.S., cancer patient

On May 17 a letter from a Compassion in Dying Board Member appeared in newspapers across the country. It talked about the work of Compassion in Dying and said, "We have come to see the importance of choice for dying patients and their families." John Lee told the story of "Mark," a Compassion client who obtained medication with which to end his suffering. Mark never chose to use it, but his wife reported that from the moment Mark was given the power of choice, he never spoke of suicide again.

A virtual deluge -- over 3000 -- letters and email have poured into the Compassion offices in response to Ann Landers' column. We passed those from areas served by a Compassion chapter on to local staff and volunteers; inquiries from Washington, Oregon and Northern California have received person-to-person contact from Compassion in their own community.

We feel privileged to have received such an outpouring of stories and sentiments. They include a multitude of touching accounts of good deaths and bad and many generous contributions. We particularly appreciate all the expressions of appreciation for the work we do, and wishes for future success. A good portion of the letters came from terminally ill individuals, to whom we provide information, consultation and support to consider every end-of-life option.

To meet the sudden need we have called on volunteers, added temporary staff, and brought on a seasoned hospice nurse to maintain telephone contact with distant patients and their families. Our national case load for telephone support at the Federation now stands at over 350 terminally ill individuals, in various stages of their illness.

A number of writers asked us to tell their stories so that others may learn from them, and we intend to do that in these pages and elsewhere. We chose the following story to print in this issue because it confirms our experience that assurance of the option of a humane hastened death can avert a violent suicide and often prolongs a patient's life.

Dear Compassion in Dying,

Today is Memorial Day. My dad was a veteran of WWII. He fought and lived through a terrible war but when he found out he had lung cancer and emphysema, he fought a battle he knew he would lose. On June 4, 1991, he decided to end the war forever by ending his last battle.

He had taken 37 radiation treatments that had decreased the tumor in his lung so much it did not show up on x-rays in October '90. By March '91, the tumor was back and growing. Dad was a very active person as are most seniors. They grew up working hard and forgot how to take it easy.

Dad gave no indication the night before when I talked to him that he was thinking about taking his own life. Monday he went for his doctor's appointment. Tuesday and Wednesday he lay in the bed, too sick and weak to get up except to go to the bathroom which was getting to be a chore for him.

Thursday, when I came home and fixed his supper to take to his room, I found him in his room with his head mostly blown off and blood and brain matter scattered all over his room and the hall to the bathroom.

His 303 British infantry rifle which he had proudly kept because it was like the one he carried in the war was sitting on the floor between his knees. It had been loaded with explosive tip shells, so the police investigator said.

I am writing this to you today so that you can put this story in your newsletter or whatever publication you want so that others will not have to deal with the horrific sight that this kind of suicide causes.

There is a better way. If this story can help just one person, it is worth the time it takes to type it here.

I have learned to deal with my dad's death. I would rather he die as he did than suffocate from lack of oxygen because of his diseased lungs.

I hope that you can help others to realize that they and their families deserve a less horrible, more dignified way of dying.

Thanks, Diane

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This article was provided by Compassion in Dying. It is a part of the publication Compassion in Dying.