Life And Death

suicide generic AP / CBS

Four random events roiled my world this week; rocked it because they were at once disconnected and connecting; coincidental and systemic; intellectual and emotional; near and far. This was a week when the sadness, the incomprehension and the shock of suicide was on the front pages of our newspapers and on the front burner of my life.

On Sunday, the gonzo hero of my college days, Hunter S. Thompson, committed suicide at his home near Aspen. On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court declared it would decide whether Oregon's assisted suicide law can withstand a challenge from the Justice Department. On Wednesday, I learned that my colleague and friend at CBS News Radio, Dan Preisendanz, had taken his own life. And all week long I had to cover the enduring saga of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman at the center of a family fight about whether she should be kept alive on a feeding tube.

Each of these events, alone, would have given me pause to think about the role of death and dying and suicide in our lives. Taken together, just days after I heard Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes say that he had contemplated suicide during one of his severe depressive episodes, these tragic reminders of the fragility of life (and emotion) just about stopped me cold. Like waves against a shore, these stories of mortality and human failing and unfulfilled promise and endless regret crashed over me, one after the other.

We have come so far in so many ways in the battle for mental health. And yet in so many ways we have so far to go. We have come so far in being able to dictate the last days of our lives. And yet in many ways we still have to fight through political and moral and judgmental barriers. We think we know people, know what they are and are not capable of, and in the end we really know very little at all. And we think we know society, and what it is and is not capable of, and in the end we almost always get it wrong.

Thompson's suicide came first. Just days after his father had shot himself in the mouth at the family home near Aspen, Juan Thompson told the Rocky Mountain News that it "was really a wonderful honor" to have been near his dad when he killed himself. "The guy was a warrior, and he went out like a warrior ... He made this choice. It's much easier than if he had been extremely depressed or unhappy and he had done this out of desperation." For the Thompson family, apparently, the patriarch's suicide was expected; a death totally in synch with a life. There is very little sadness surrounding Thompson's end — or at least a reasonable amount of sadness tinged with an unusual amount of happy remembrances. Thompson played the part, his part, to the bitter end.

I cannot imagine that Juan Thompson's perspective right now matches the feelings in the Preisendanz home. I do not know why my friend Dan chose this path out of his life. He leaves behind a wife and two children, each of whom I know he was terribly proud of. He was the kind of person every good workplace needs to succeed. He was smart and witty, calming and excitable, and mostly the sort of fellow you would be willing either to follow or to lead. As CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitney said Wednesday on the network's "World News Roundup" broadcast: "Listeners never heard his voice, but you should know what a good, dedicated journalist Dan was. You benefited from his constant striving to make each broadcast better — to get the very latest information on the air. Those of us who are anchors know how much Dan did to make us sound good."

There will be no press conferences from the Preisendanzes; no talk about how his death mirrored his life in art; no exclamations that the family is "honored" that Dan decided to do what he did. Unlike the Thompson suicide, the tragedy of the life and death of Dan Preisendanz, I suspect, is much more like the tragedy that most suicides represent; an awful, gaping, irreversible loss that torments the survivors even as it purports to release the pain of the victim. I wrote Dan's widow a note the other day but for one of the rare times in my life I just didn't know what to say.

What changes inside the mind of someone to make them think that their life cannot ever get better or that the lives of those who love them will be better off once they are gone? What makes a person decide that one day is better than the next or that there are no joyful days for them left on Earth? All I could think about Wednesday after I had heard about Dan was his children, and my own son, and how deep must have been his despair to have left his children so soon and so irreversibly. I cannot imagine being able to muster what it would take to leave my boy. And so it makes me sad to think about how bad things must have been, or seemed to be, to someone I cared about.

If Thompson's end was predictable, and my friend Dan's was not, there is also this week the continuing saga of the Schiavos. Terri Schiavo's husband says that she would not have wanted to live in her current brain-damaged state, and years ago he went to court and got an order permitting him to remove her feeding tube. Her parents, on the other hand, believe she would have wanted to live this way or at least that she did not tell her husband that he could pull the plug. They, too, have gone to court and are fighting Terri's husband every step of the way.

For years now the case has gone back and forth. The Florida Supreme Court has ruled. The state legislature and the governor have had their say and continue to look for ways to keep Schiavo alive. It is a case that is as unseemly and grotesque as it is dramatic. A woman on the edge of life and death now is a political and legal and religious and even moral football, tossed back and forth between the courts. And that brings me to the Supreme Court's decision early this week to look into Oregon's "death with dignity" law; a policy choice that a majority of voters in that state have made over the course of the past few years.

In Oregon, a terminally ill patient may seek and receive medical treatment that would help them to die in certain limited circumstances. A number of safeguards are in place to ensure that no one takes advantage of the law and there appears to be no great rebellion in Oregon seeking to change things back to the old ways of handling the space between life and death; the days when perhaps a doctor and family members would quietly and surreptitiously accomplish what the law now explicitly allows them to do..

The Justice Department, however, first under former Attorney General John Ashcroft and now under his successor, believes that the Oregon law permits doctors to break federal drug laws. And so the feds have sued the state, claiming that Oregon must stop the practice in deference to the supremacy of federal laws over state ones. Not surprisingly, none of the federal courts that have looked at the case have sided with the feds, but now the Supreme Court will wade in. About a year from now, we should know whether the Oregon law passes its constitutional test.

Obviously, none of the four scenarios are the same. Oregon's "death with dignity" law would have done nothing for Terri Schiavo. Neither Thompson nor Dan would have benefited from having a written "living will" that would have directed doctors unambiguously to handle Schiavo's situation. And the debate over assisted-suicide is a much different one than the less formal argument we have as a nation about how we can and must help those around us who live in despair. But all four events raise common questions about the struggle between life and death.

There are some suicides that are expected, I guess, and some that come as a shock. There are some that are sanctioned by the state and presided over by family and friends and doctors and there are some that happen alone, in the dark. There are some that are accompanied by almost joyous outpourings of relief and there are some that just highlight the awesome pain of life.

As this awful week ends, I keep thinking the same thought: living is hard enough without having to worry about dying. I wish Dan and Thompson were still around. I wish we knew for sure what Terri Schiavo really wants. I wish a federal government that purports to love "freedom" would leave its people free to make one of the most important decisions any human being can face. And I wish for more understanding about why so many good people leave us too soon and why so many bad ones seem to stay forever.

By Andrew Cohen
  • Lloyd Vries

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