Compassion and respect

Elizabeth Godfrey

Elizabeth Godfrey

Elizabeth GodfreyBill Godfrey describes his mother as someone who was full of life. Someone highly active, who defined herself by her ability to help others.

In December 2002, she for the third time attempted suicide. She was suffering from a damaged spine resulting from an attack a few years earlier, which left her in debilitating, untreatable pain.

This time she succeeded.

“Basically what then followed was that the police came in, we were both called in for interview, Stuart was charged, and our lawyer told us that because of the very vagueness of the law there was really no alternative to him pleading guilty,” Bill said.

Basically what then followed was that the police came in, we were both called in for interview, Stuart was charged – Bill Godfrey

Stuart is Bill’s brother, and he was present at the time their mother committed suicide. He was charged with assisting suicide and faced 21 years in prison.

Far from being a malicious accomplice, Stuart’s presence at the time of his mother’s death was entirely motivated by love and care.

Following her second unsuccessful attempt to take her life, Bill and Stuart Godfrey sat down to speak with their mother.

“[We] said we understood that she may well attempt suicide again, that we understood and agreed it was her right,” Bill said.

“But, because of the risk of damage we wanted to be present at any attempt in order to be able to say if it was obviously going to fail, ‘Sorry, it’s going to fail you must stop’.”

Bill and Stuart had already watched the agonising deterioration of their mother’s condition over the preceding years.

“While she was still able to get about she continued to be extremely active in all sorts of things but gradually the pain increased and increased,” Bill said.

“Pain killers worked for a while, but it eventually got to the stage where only opiates would work and it was discovered that she was violently allergic to all opiates so she couldn’t use them.

“Things got worse and worse and worse to the point where my brother and I were sharing turn and turn about spending the night there to bring her things that she needed.”

Bill grew up knowing his mother, a practising Christian, believed she had the right to make her own end of life decisions. He said she was also against using scarce medical resources for an untreatable condition.

Things again reached a peak when a palliative care specialist told Bill’s mother she needed to move out of her home into care, something to which she was adamantly opposed.

“At that time palliation in her circumstances simply meant keeping her on the edge of unconsciousness until she finally died. That’s not living,” Bill said, adding he believes procedures may have changed since then.

A few days later she had an acute attack of pain, beyond the chronic day to day pain, and she once again attempted to end it; and succeeded, with Stuart at her side to ensure her safety should anything go wrong.

Despite simply being beside his mother to make sure her attempt didn’t result in yet more damage, Stuart was charged with assisting her suicide.

“We’d had a long conversation with my mother and we’d worked through what, to the best of our understanding, would be securing her against a failure without helping her to suicide, which is a tricky little line to walk,” Bill said.

When Stuart was charged Bill was in disbelief, “at such a stupid law, frankly”.

“If there was to be a law to make it wrong to assist suicide then at minimum the law should specify what constitutes assisting, which it doesn’t,” he said.

“Throughout basically we were saying to anybody who’d listen, and the police did listen, that our purpose in being present was to be able to tell her to stop if it was certain to fail at grave risk of further damage to her and they accepted that, but the law said it was assisting.”

Bill wasn’t caring for his mother that night as he was away for his birthday. But he said if he had been there, he would have done exactly the same thing.

“From my point of view, and I think also from Stuart’s, the greatest sense was relief that she had finally been able to achieve what she had wanted to do for a long time,” he said.

“Obviously there’s the loss of a mother but in a sense we’d gone through all that long before because it was progressive loss.

“The trauma was not so much associated with her death as … going through the whole process of being questioned, and giving evidence and so on. Over a very long period that is pretty traumatic and, put it this way, not kind to a family who deeply loved the woman who’d gone.”

In 2004 Stuart was given a 12 month suspended sentence by Justice Peter Underwood.

“It was interesting that the judge … made it very clear in his judgement that he was required to convict him because of the state of the law but that it was the wrong thing to do,” Bill said.

“Incidentally also, when Stuart pleaded guilty the prosecutor gave a speech which to my ears sounded like a case for the defence.

“There was nobody who really thought it should be a punishable offence, it was pretty clear that people didn’t really think it was assisting under the meaning of any sensible act, but there we were.”

If the legislation that will be before the parliament next year was law in 1998, Bill believes his mother may not have made her first attempt at suicide.

“And the second attempt, which was if you like timely as she had suffered a great deal already by then, would have succeeded so the whole of the succeeding agony would not have happened,” he said.

By Piia Wirsu, Published in The Examiner, 4 Dec 2016.

Justice P Underwood judgement J S Godfrey

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