Freedom to Die

The story of a Hollywood couple's love and death is heart-rending. It should also spur change.

Newspapers around the country played the New Year's Eve suicides of Morris and Estelle Spivack as a dramatic spectacle. Almost every headline about the Hollywood couple, for example, contained the word "leap." The Chicago Tribune printed this atop its brief January 3 story: "Ailing couple leaps 17 floors to death."

The Spivacks, who were indeed ailing and both limited to walkers, couldn't leap. They couldn't even jump. And if they could have, they couldn't have leapt 17 stories unless they were comic book heroes. No, the Spivacks climbed up onto a chair to reach their condo's bedroom window and basically dropped themselves from the ledge.

But a "death leap," as the Miami Herald called it, is more compelling, so that's the way it was recorded for history. The media's verbicide in this case is only a symptom of its irresponsible coverage of suicide in general. They don't report on self-inflicted deaths at all, in fact, unless they occur in public (as in the case of the Spivacks) or a well-known figure is involved. Editors argue that bringing attention to suicide is hurtful to survivors and could encourage more people to try it.

So the media, rather than investigate the social problem of suicide, generally ignore it. And very quietly, about 6,500 seniors -- including about 50 in Broward County -- kill themselves in violent, painful ways each year in the United States. Quietly to the general public, at least. Unfortunate bystanders like the security guard who was nearby when the Spivacks hit the ground hear it all too well.

The prevailing tone of the Spivack coverage was shock and disbelief. As a neighbor put it in the Herald story: "He was a dignified man, they were just a lovely couple. You would expect this from someone a little wacko, but him? No. But I guess you never know."

We are supposed to sigh after reading that and say something like, "How sad." And in some ways it is, indeed, profoundly sad. That life must end and that death often comes with great pain and misery are not pleasant truths. But ending misery on one's own terms shouldn't be an occasion only for sadness or shock to those left behind. It should be a time to remember and celebrate life. But such sentiments are nearly impossible when the end comes in gruesome, public fashion, as in the Spivacks' case.

Because euthanasia is illegal in every state except Oregon (and even that law is under siege by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft), the carnage keeps coming. Three years ago, I researched a year's worth of senior citizen suicides in Broward County (see "No Exit," January 20, 2000). In file after file at the Medical Examiner's Office, the carnage was depicted in photographs and official reports. Heads blown half off. Bodies hanging eerily from trees. Mangled jumpers. A burned corpse. An old man with a weight tied around his neck at the bottom of a community pool.

And I learned the stories of the survivors, like the wife who not only heard her sick husband shoot himself with a shotgun but also had to clean up after the body was taken to the morgue.

The statistics are just as disturbing: Men over age 80 are six times more likely to kill themselves than everyone else, and senior citizens commit suicide at a rate 50 percent greater than that of the general public.

This year, at least 53 people age 60 and over killed themselves in Broward County, according to a perusal of the medical examiner's logbook. An all-too-typical case was that of Joseph Mills, 72, who shot his 92-year-old wife, Lila, and then killed himself in their Oakland Park home. He left a note on the kitchen table addressed not to survivors but to his wife.

My dearest Lila, Four strokes, several cancer operations, 27 radiation treatments. We have suffered enough. Joe.

The note said it all. Life had become a hellish cycle of health problems, and it was time to go. Virtually everyone who has lived more than 60 years on this planet has weathered life crises and prevailed, at some point, over pain and depression. Who's really to judge whether that person finally had enough? Suicide experts talk of how treatment for depression would prevent elderly suicides. Perhaps counseling would help in some cases, but suicide under dire medical circumstances can be a logical solution, no matter what a well-meaning psychologist might say. Unspeakable pain, loss of independence, and the prospect of becoming a financial burden on one's family is horrific stuff. If I get to that point, I'd like a chance to die peacefully, rather than have to buy a damn gun.

And more people than ever are going to experience that nightmare in the coming decades. Right now, seniors make up 13 percent of the population but 20 percent of the suicides in the United States. In the year 2030, the number of senior citizens is projected to nearly double, to 70 million.

The final suicides of the year were those of Morris ("Moe") and Estelle Spivack. I called their nephew, Carl Schwartz, last week and told him that I was interested in the impact of suicide on survivors. I asked if he would mind talking about his experience. "You are the first reporter to call me and ask me that question," he said. "All these reporters are calling me and have asked really stupid questions. One of them asked me if they held hands when they jumped. I didn't talk with any of them, but I'll answer your questions."

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