Opinion piece by Clinical Psychologist, James Scott
James Scott

James Scott posted the following on Facebook:

“Professor Sean Davidson had been convicted in his country of birth, New Zealand, for helping his terminally ill mother take her own life. On 20 September 2018 he was arrested in Cape Town for the murder of his friend, 43 year old doctor Anrich Burger. I posted this story about Anrich’s dad, Leon, in Afrikaans in 2016:

I think we all meet someone in our lifetimes, even if the contact is brief, who makes a lasting impression on us. I will always remember Leon.

It is 2009. My family and I are on holiday in The Haven, a hotel on the Transkei coast. I shake hands with fellow-Afrikaner, Leon, at the dimly lit bar counter and he generously offers me oysters. He is big man and old enough to be my dad. His thick grey mob of hair is combed backwards and he pushes his solid black framed glasses to a comfortable position on his nose. With the vigour of a charismatic preacher he passionately tells me how he, as the right hand man of Sir Seretse Khama, had fled the country in the middle of the night onboard a small plane. I observe Leon gently thanking the waitress. Coquettishly, she frolics off. "Sothos, the people with the softest hearts," he says thoughtfully. Later, he tells me about his son, Anrich, a doctor who is a quadriplegic after a four-wheel vehicle accident and who lives with excruciating pain every day. Leon says, "He asks me to take him to Switzerland. How can it be wrong?” Leon and I quietly look at each other. One morning he and I drive into the bushes. I tell him that I have read about Scream therapy, but never tried it. We spontaneously start to yell. He is the first and last person that I have done this with. Leon clearly enjoys our cursing at the pain of life and his voice reverberates over the tree tops. A month later we move to Australia and I get the occasional text message from Leon. He says he's not good at technology, and eventually, our contact diminishes.

In 2010, my bosom friend, Kobus, and I walk along the sea at Eerste River. Kobus is single and he says, "Surely you will ensure that I don’t suffer endlessly in my old age".

It is devastating for people to get that ‘cold water in the face’ message from once-hopeful specialists who look at them empathically and say there is no hope for their loved one. In my work as a psychologist, I think that hope is respectively the best and the worst thing in life. Time does not heal all wounds. There is a moment when even hope for a ’divine intervention’ for physical and psychological problems disappears.

Although the grief and pain of some depressed and terminally ill believers are potentially greater than that of Job, their fear of the punishment of hell prevents them from making an end to it all. I suspect their hell is on earth. We cannot play God and heedlessly help people to end their lives, but one wonders about the cases where people have absolutely no quality of life. Their death, physical and psychological - and not their life - is prolonged. I understand the line of thought to regard suicide as a selfish act, especially when children are left behind. The suffering of loved ones who stay behind intensifies if they feel that their thoughts and feelings were not taken into account. The ideal is perhaps to communicate such thoughts with the loved ones who remain. Mutual compassion is probably the ideal.

The words, "if you love someone, set him/her free," are well known. Perhaps the highest form of love is to allow a loved one trapped in his body to switch off the light. I think there is only one rule with such a decision. It needs to be purely about the need of the one who is experiencing pain. One is not supposed to ever have a consumer attitude regarding a loved one, and no one may ever become disposable for the sake of family members' personal comfort. Leon never needed to fly his son to Switzerland. A mutual friend told me about his sudden death after a heart attack. Anrich succeeded in escaping from his pain with the assistance of a colleague friend in a hotel room at the Cape Waterfront in 2013. My friend, Kobus, never became old or sick. He died of a heart attack at the age of 49.

I attended many funerals in my father's church in Welkom and as a child handed out encouraging Hallelujah song books at the front door. On the maroon pulpit cloth, I saw the words Faith, Hope and Love every Sunday. From a very early age I heard that the greatest of these is Love. And may it never be so, but if I am ever in a situation where Hope disappears, and my cry for help reverberates over the top of trees, I trust that someone will bestow the highest form of love on me.”