In Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird, lawyer Atticus Finch, a central character, tells his two young children: “You never know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk about in them.”
Last week the body of retired firefighter Dave Thomson, 69, was found in his Edinburgh flat after he apparently killed himself. He was facing trial next year for the murder of his wife last April. Eileen was suffering from cancer and a source has been quoted as saying that he had killed her because she had asked him to. It would appear that the burden was too heavy for him and he decided to lift it by taking his own life.
Dave joined our company in a West End bar in the summer and was a regular visitor throughout the following few months.
He told us that he had “lost” his wife in April and that he missed her terribly. Indeed, within a short time of meeting him, he would speak about his wife and on the frequent occasions that he would abruptly leave our company he would explain afterwards that it was because he had been thinking of her.
He had retired from the fire service after 25 years and was formerly a military police officer in the Royal Air Force. Although charged with the offence, he was granted bail which is a clear indication that the court did not believe that he posed a danger to the public, yet he was caught up in a tragedy which ultimately cost his life and that of his wife.
In 2015, the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill came before the Scottish Parliament where it was defeated. It was first championed by the late Margo MacDonald MSP who said: “As someone with a degenerative condition – Parkinson’s – this debate is not a theory with me. The possibility of having the worst form of the disease at the end of my life has made me think about unpleasant things. I feel strongly that, in the event of losing my dignity or being faced with the prospect of a painful or protracted death, I should have the right to choose to curtail my own and my family’s suffering.”
The Bill proposed that only those with terminal or life-shortening illnesses – deteriorating, progressive conditions which make life intolerable – could seek assisted dying.
They would have been allowed to seek the help of a doctor to end their lives, but any requests to GPs would have had to be backed up by a second opinion from a medical professional.
There would also have been a 14-day “cooling off” period.
The current position in law was summed up by the Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland QC, when the Bill was first proposed when he stated “in Scotland, if someone assists another to take their own life, such cases would be reported to the procurator fiscal as a deliberate killing of another and thus dealt with under the law relating to homicide”.
This is not the case in some other countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Sweden where assisted suicide is legal – but costly.
A recent study by the campaign group Dignity in Dying found that more than half of UK citizens would consider going abroad for an assisted death but only a quarter said that they would be able to afford the average £10,000 cost.
Sarah Wootton, the chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said: “By denying terminally ill people the option of an assisted death at home, we are not solving the problem, just outsourcing it to Switzerland – and dying people and their families are paying the price.”
The report cites the case of a young man who said that his mother was diagnosed with thyroid cancer which spread throughout her body. She had decided against going abroad for assistance in dying because of the costs involved but later regretted it due to the pain and suffering she experienced at the end of her life.
He said: “Because of the complexity of her illness, my mum was suffering all the way to the end. She was looking at us saying ‘why can I not die? If I had known it was going to be like this, I would have gone to Switzerland.’ My mum didn’t want that suffering and that’s haunting me. It will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
So Dave, I have taken Atticus Finch’s advice and tried on your shoes, walked around in them, and I now believe that you did not act out of malice or for personal gain but out of compassion.
RIP both of you.