Last Writes

Some suicide notes are short, some tell a more detailed story. They all have unhappy endings.

"This is really the best choice."
On its surface, Bobbi B.'s note was an expression of the pain and frustration she had endured because of a physical problem with her feet, an affliction two surgeries had failed to alleviate. But that didn't seem to be enough to drive a person to suicide, and at first some friends and family members suspected Bobbi had been murdered and the note was a fake. There was no evidence of homicide, however, and it soon became apparent that the medical difficulties had been nothing compared to Bobbi's real illness, which was emotional.

Her father, for whom she worked, was the only man in Bobbi's life, friends say, and at age 43, she resented her dependence on him. "She was a very self-destructive girl," says one long-time friend. "She always had to find something wrong with herself. That thing about not being able to play tennis A she hadn't played tennis in twelve years. All the talk about the pain she was experiencing, it was just a cover-up for another kind of pain. She was an unhappy girl. She really died of loneliness. She regretted her divorce. She had friends, but not a man to take care of her. She never thought she'd be alone this long. And then her mother died a year ago. The dress she wanted to be buried in, she wore it to her mother's funeral."

All but one of Bobbi's final wishes were honored: Instead of the black dress, she was buried wearing a skirt and a white blouse with a high, frilly collar. The dress would not have concealed the rope marks around her neck.

For six months Patricia B. lived with the news that she was terminally ill. Diagnosed with lung cancer in April 1992, she held on as the disease spread to her liver. But as summer turned to fall, she saw no reason to go on with the knowledge and the pain. On October 1, the 57-year-old Miami Beach resident took a handgun and shot herself once in the head. Instead of using her last words to say goodbye to friends or family, she took the opportunity to rail against a society that would not allow her to end her own life with dignity. "I am in pain," she wrote. "If I were a dog, I could be put to sleep. But the law is not that kind to humans. So I must do this to end my suffering."

The terminally ill and the elderly account for more suicides than any other age group in the United States, which helps explain why Florida, with its high concentration of senior citizens, had the third-highest number of suicides in 1990, ranking behind only California and Texas. More than any other reason, those who end their own lives in Dade County cite the desire to end the suffering that accompanies disease or old age. On the Fourth of July, for example, when Jose G. hanged himself, the note found in his pocket read: "Couldn't stand the sickness any more. No one to blame."

Two years ago measures that would have made it legal for doctors to assist in the suicides of terminally ill patients were narrowly defeated by voters in the states of California and Washington. The Hemlock Society, whose founder, Derek Humphry, wrote Final Exit, and which helped promote the ballot items, has promised to bring back the propositions in the coming years not only in those Western states, but eventually here in Florida, as well.

"In Florida this is particularly an important issue. I think pretty soon we are going to have suicide clinics the way we have abortion clinics," argues Ronald Maris, the South Carolina university researcher and past president of the American Association of Suicidology. "And it is going to be legal. At the other end of the life span, people are going to go to the doctor to be killed."

Dade medical examiner Roger Mittleman observes that people who have resolved to kill themselves tend to do so no matter how hard loved ones or the law tries to stop them. "When somebody is determined to kill himself, there is virtually no way to stop it," says Mittleman. "Some people have tried multiple times in the course of one day. I remember a case of a man who tried to electrocute himself, cut his throat, and eventually set himself on fire. The determination is amazing." (As in the case of Edward G.: Concerned that he might attempt suicide after he lost his job as a pilot for Air Jamaica and was served with divorce papers, Edward's friends removed all guns from his house. But on February 26, he fashioned a homemade pistol out of a curtain rod and a stapler, then shot himself in the head.)

In cases where counseling and medical treatment are not rational alternatives, many say the idea of sanctioned suicide is worth considering. "Should we allow people to kill themselves at the end of their lives? Should the government help them? Should there be drugs available? Should doctors write prescriptions for fatal drug overdoses?" Ronald Maris asks. "I think under certain controlled circumstances, suicide is reasonable, and we ought to allow it."

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