Please doctor, end it for her: Harriet Hammond tells how she helped to bring about her mother's death

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The Independent Online
I had long wished my mother dead. Not because she was such a terrible burden to me but because, poor thing, she longed to die herself. She'd been a highly successful, well known career woman, but also an alcoholic, who tried to kill herself twice. Once she'd been a delightful, attractive and funny woman - but not one cut out for much mothering. Indeed, from the age of about 10 I'd been a loving if understandably resentful mother to her - and she was a loving but difficult child to me.

When she finally gave up drinking she suffered from depression and used to sit alone in her perfectly designed sitting-room saying: 'Will I ever get better, darling? Will I?' And I'd sit there saying: 'Yes, yes,' as she stuffed another biscuit into herself - eating was her only consolation - and wondered whether I knew what on earth I was talking about.

After her second suicide attempt I went round to her house to tidy up. There was the letter - 'I'm sorry, darling, I do love you, Mummy.' I loved her quite as much as I found coping with her unbearable and I wished for both our sakes that she'd been successful in her suicide bid. When I heard she'd recovered I cried and cried. But still, life goes on - and in the house there were the rest of the pills: all over the place, hidden in the pile of the immaculate white carpet.

I'd gathered them up and, to my shame, wondered what to do with them. It seemed so cruel to throw them away when I knew how unhappy she was. I kept them in an old envelope in my bag.

'Can I have them back?' she pleaded, moist-eyed, when she came out of hospital. 'I promise I won't try again.' I didn't know how to deal with such a request. I handed them over. I felt terrible. When I told my father, who was divorced from her, he was shocked.

'If anything happened you could be liable,' he said. I think he meant I'd be liable for a huge guilt trip when she did use them again as, to be sure, she would.

So one autumn afternoon when I knew she was out I sneaked round to her house and searched it from top to bottom. I found the pills at the bottom of an enormous Japanese jar holding a beautiful array of dried flowers. I picked them out and threw them down the loo. I felt like a criminal. And I felt even worse when, a fortnight later, she rang me.

'Darling, you haven't seen my pills, have you?' she asked. 'I only wanted one to sleep. I can't find them anywhere.' The pain and despair in her voice were unbearable.

I'd taken her to psychiatrist after psychiatrist; she'd tried everything to help overcome her suicidal feelings, from alternative healers to Harley Street specialists. 'You will get better, I promise,' I kept saying, as I held her shiny hand in the taxis afterwards. I just longed for her to be happy.

The burden was entirely on me - an only child, a single parent, in my early thirties - and my mother's boyfriend, barely older.

When she was diagnosed as having cancer it was, peculiarly, an enormous relief. Even she seemed to welcome it. But her consultant couldn't grasp our situation.

He was a man with a glued-on smile, bright silver hair and a gold-linked bracelet peeping out from under his white coat. He was fearfully smooth. The desk in his consulting room groaned with weird gifts - an onyx clock, a heap of trendy iron filings, a bluey-white porcelain dove.

He cheerfully told my mother that she had as much chance of dying of cancer as being run over by a bus and she would soon be 'out and about and able to go to the theatre'. Afterwards, as we combed the streets for a cab, my mother, who loathed the theatre, shuddered. 'Ghastly man, ghastly taste,' she said. Ghastly verdict, I think she felt, as well.

Even when she was admitted to hospital, having transfusions every few days, confused and in agony in between, the cheery doctor wouldn't let up.

'A few more months, maybe,' he said, patting me on the back in the corridor, optimistically. 'Or who knows. I've seen some of my patients going into remission even at this stage. Cheer up.' Cheer up] I told him how depressed my mother was and made it quite clear that death was the best answer for her, but he didn't hear me. He just smiled back suavely. 'Soon get all that sorted out,' he said. But the depression had lasted for 10 years. 'Wonderful woman like your mother. Young, talented . . .'

Every day I went into the hospital and sat with her. I remembered what she had said to me when we'd talked about life after death. She'd pooh-poohed the idea; she was sure we went out like candles. 'And, as I believe that,' she'd once added, 'you will promise me, darling, not to let me gutter, won't you?' I'd promised. But if anyone was guttering, she was. She was stuck in a hospital room with Radio 1, which she hated, blaring out all day.

Her mouth was so full of sores she could hardly eat. Her hair was thin, her nails like claws. The beautiful, glamorous woman she had once been had completely disappeared. She looked like a witch and she was in torment.

Then, a week after she was admitted, I was met in the corridor by a weeping nurse. 'I'm Irish, I'm Catholic,' she cried, taking my hands in hers. 'And please believe me, your mother is suffering. I know how unhappy and in what pain she is. There is no way she can last the week. There are things that can be done to make it quicker. Please ask the doctor.'

'I've asked him,' I said, because I had. 'I can't ask him again.'

But, head swimming with confusion, I saw the doctor again. I broke down in tears, saying that she didn't want to live, she was in pain, I begged him to do something. Poor man. His expression changed.

With an exquisite Mont Blanc pen, he wrote out a prescription. 'Well, then, let's try this,' he said. 'She will go into a long sleep and be out of pain, at least.' And he shook my hand. He was saying goodbye.

When I got back to her bed I turned off Radio 1. The consultant's sidekick hurried after me with a syringe. I held my mother's hand. He injected her and mummy looked up at me. I kissed her bony cheek and said: 'Don't worry, everything is going to be all right. It's just going to be oblivion.'

'Thank you, darling,' she said, and she smiled.

She died that night.

Well, it was what I wanted, wasn't it? But I felt pretty peculiar afterwards. When I went to collect her things at the hospital and happened to bump into the underling who'd given my mother the last jab, I said: 'If my mother had been perfectly healthy and had been given that injection, she would have lived, wouldn't she?'

His fingers tightened on a large file he was carrying, he squirmed and looked at his toes. He said, blushing: 'I wouldn't say that, exactly.'

As always, I went to my father for comfort. This time his reaction was more positive. 'You not only did exactly the right thing,' he said. 'But if you hadn't done it you would have done such a wrong thing it would have haunted you all your life.'

I still believe that euthanasia should be against the law so that if it is abused and the inhabitants of old people's homes go down in sinister droves, those responsible could be prosecuted for murder. But I also believe that it should remain a thoroughly grey area. Prosecutions should not be brought in cases such as Dr Nigel Cox's - or, indeed, my mother's.

There was no question of a prosecution in her case but I still don't like to use my real name when describing my action, in case the doctor gets into trouble. And all this, peculiar as it is, is as it should be. I know and approve the fact that euthanasia goes on all the time, administered by doctors who know that in some cases it might be criminal but that it is also morally reprehensible not to administer, in some cases, a fatal dose.

The author's name has been changed.

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