Part II of Interim interview with sister of Kevorkian victim

Tina Allerellie and sister Karen ShoffstallOn August 13, 1997, Long Island resident Karen Shoffstall died at the hands of infamous US euthanasia champion Jack Kevorkian, nine days before her 35th birthday. A highly successful salesperson, Karen had been living with multiple sclerosis, a chronic, progressively debilitating disease. She was well enough at the time of her death to travel alone to Detroit, where she had arranged to meet Kevorkian; but it is said she wanted to end her life before her condition worsened.

Karen was born and raised near Guelph, Ontario. Her family, who still reside there, were devastated by her suicide, and called on authorities to lay murder charges against Kevorkian. Karen’s sister, Tina Allerellie, recently spoke with The Interim’s David Curtin about Karen’s death, and about the issues of euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide.

David: You said that you wish Karen could have talked to someone who could have helped her properly. I wonder if sometimes the responses people give are too mixed up in, well, “It’s your choice; you’re the one to decide”, the independence, and all the individualism that’s out there in the culture. I wonder if we need to be saying, “No, absolutely not, don’t do that, that’s wrong. You’re precious and there’s another way.” I wonder if we’re all so caught up in “choice,” we forget that the whole point of being free is to choose good things.

Tina: Exactly. That is exactly what I’m thinking. Before all this happened, I was really standing on the sidelines myself. I never, ever agreed with euthanasia or mercy-killing; but at the same time, I thought it doesn’t affect me and if other people want to do it, that’s their choice.

I’m realizing now that we need to have the courage to stand up and say, “No, it is wrong.” If people want to say that I don’t understand, that’s their problem, because I think I understand more than the average person out there. I get into debates with people a lot at work now, who say, “You don’t know what it’s like to be in a wheelchair; you don’t know what it’s like to suffer.”

No, I don’t, and that’s true. But I do know what it’s like to lose someone you love unnecessarily. And I do know – I’m learning – what it’s like to always stand back on the sidelines. That doesn’t make anything good come about. All that happens that way is the world decays.

I can’t help but think that when Canada was formed, it was formed on the basis of freedom. But I think freedom back then was a lot different than what we see freedom as being today. To me, freedom means responsibility. It doesn’t mean to just say, “I’m not getting things done my way, so I’m checking out.”

That’s not right, and that’s not what being Canadian is about. That’s not what it means to be a true, valuable life. We’re here for what we can give, not for what we can get. And it’s time people started hearing that again, I believe.

David: People in favor of euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide talk about it being a personal thing or an individual choice; but what I’m hearing from you is it could never be simply a personal choice, because it affects people around you inevitably. It’s affected you and your family and Karen’s friends. It can’t possibly be just a private thing.

Tina: It’s not. I have the freedom to choose what kind of car I want to drive; that’s my choice, I’m driving it. But I have no right to say, “I’m out of here,” because my life affects other people’s lives.

My mother’s life affects mine. If she were to die, again I would be devastated. My life would not be the same. With my sister dying, my life will never be the same. A part of me has died with her. So, as you said, it’s not a personal choice, because it affects everyone.

The debate that has come up in Guelph over it, it’s not right. To say it’s the humane thing to do – no, it’s not. It is not the humane thing to do. We are human beings and God, He’s the one in charge of us, and He loves us more than any human being could. He knows what He’s doing. We don’t. We have no right to play God.

Maybe if people would stop standing back and saying they have a right to kill themselves if they feel that their life is no longer worth living, maybe that’s an easy scapegoat for them so that they don’t have to get up and help themselves. Because everybody is so comfortable in their own little world. We need to reach out to people and say to others – to our neighbors – thank you just for being here, instead of saying, “Hey, you’re on your own.” We need each other.

David: In some cases where someone is considering suicide, the people supporting them in that direction may be doing it out of some misguided sense of compassion. Others might not have even that. There might be a little inheritance they’re looking at. How can we ever safeguard against that? How do we know what’s in someone’s heart? We can’t judge what is motivating them to support somebody who is despairing and aiming at suicide.

Tina: Even with the misguided sense of compassion, this politically-correct thing is driving me nuts. Even with my sister talking about Kervorkian, I think the average person said, well, “It’s your choice,” because they didn’t want to say to her, “How dare you; how can you even think of that?” They were afraid of offending her. Well, maybe that’s exactly what she needed to hear.

When I was younger and felt that my life wasn’t worth living, I certainly didn’t need anyone to say “that’s your decision.” What I needed to know was that I was loved and that I was worth something, that my disappearance from the earth would hurt another person. I needed to hear that. I didn’t need to hear, “Whatever you want.” That would just confirm my own worst fear that I’m not loved.

I think that’s what happened to my sister. Most anyone else who considers suicide or assisted-suicide – it isn’t the physical problems that they’re having so much as the emotional pain that they’re going through. You can deal with anything that you’re faced with, but one thing you can’t seem to deal with is the pain and loneliness that you feel in your heart. That’s what people can’t tolerate, and that’s what they want to get away from. The way to combat that is not by saying suicide is okay. The way to combat that is to say, “I love you, please don’t do that.” And maybe that will give them the strength to face another day.

David: Do you think some people are thinking that caring for people who need long-term care is expensive, and we’re trying to cut back and balance the budget? Is this part of it do you think for some people?

Tina: I think the money issue is a very large issue. To that I say my sister made an awful lot of money by the time she died. What good was it? She had everything she ever dreamed of when she died. For what? Who cares about money? Yes, we do need money to survive. That unfortunately is a fact. But you cannot put a dollar value on human life. And if you think you can, well then put it on your own life, don’t put it on mine.

We are a country that should be bonded together to help one another, not to say you don’t make financial sense to keep alive. That’s not a proper country. That’s not what it means to be a community. That’s not a proper community to say that, and to do that to your neighbor.

David: If there is that attitude out there – that people with special needs are too costly – are those people going to be feeling pressured, as if not only are they a burden to their families, but they’re costing society as well, just by being? Is that a factor, do you think, for people considering suicide? Would it have been a factor for Karen?

Tina: One thing my sister was really worried about was ending up in a convalescent home. Unfortunately, the burden factor is there; but it’s a lie. It’s just as much a lie as believing that two and two equals five. If anyone is considered a burden to society, then maybe it’s time society stops and takes a look at our own attitudes.

In Kitchener, they have this place called Camp Quality for young cancer patients. Are those kids a burden? I don’t think so. And to ever insinuate that they are – we need to slap ourselves silly for thinking that.

David: Often today, people are coming forward and saying we’ve got to legalize doctor-assisted suicide, and regulate it in different ways. What would you like to say to ordinary Canadians? What would you like them to think about when these people are calling for doctor-assisted suicide in this country?

Tina: I’d like them to realize that it’s easy to sit back and to look at other people, like I’m sure North America is looking at my sister. You didn’t know her, and it’s so easy to be hypothetical when you don’t know the person. Make it personal. Say to yourself, “What if it happened to me? What if it was my sister or my brother, or my mom or my dad, or even myself? How would that affect me?”

I’m telling you, it destroys you inside, because we’re losing what true human life means. We’re losing it, and we just look at life as being kind of like a video game – one’s gone, well, we’ll get another one.

No, you’re not just a life that can be replaced. You are a person. My sister is not just Number 51 on Kervorkian’s list. My sister was Karen Margarethe Allerellie Shoffstall, and she will never be again. Don’t let that happen to other people, because you’re not just a life, you are special, and you’ve got to hang on to that.

David: Some of our Canadian political leaders are really pushing for a change in Canadian law to allow doctor-assisted suicide. They talk about people’s rights to “die with dignity,” and these sorts of things. Do you have anything to say to our political leaders in their decision-making on this issue?

Tina: Well, I’d like to know exactly what their version of dying with dignity is. For me to die with dignity would be when I’m on my death-bed and I’m about to be called home and I’m surrounded by my loved ones and through it all I can still be there and say, “I love you. I may be suffering, but I love you.” That to me is a lot more dignified than to go to a hotel room and be injected with a lethal dose of some poison, and to become part of the media circus. Where is the dignity in that?

And also suicide – you’re giving up. You’re saying, “I just can’t take it. I give up. I quit. I’ve failed.” Where is the dignity in that? It isn’t there; and I can’t help but think that our forefathers who founded this country would be turning over in their graves right now if they saw the way the government was going, being so lax about everything.

We should be a strong nation – a nation that stands up and helps one another, and not a nation that says “Kill yourselves, it saves us money.” That’s not right.

David: Where to now, for you, in trying to get on with things and understand this?

Tina: Before this happened, my biggest goal in life was to own a GMC Yukon – I love that truck, I still would like to have one – and make enough money to just survive. I don’t care about any of that anymore (except maybe the truck, I still want it). Now my goal in life is to make sure that everybody that I know knows they are loved and that they’re never alone – to give more of myself to other people, and not be so content in my little comfort-zone as to turn away another person.

So, now I really don’t look too much at what’s outward. For me anymore it’s all what’s in the heart; and if I can achieve that, then I’m a true success. That’s what I want to go for.