How Rear Adm. Chester Nimitz Jr. and Joan Nimitz Chose to Die

Health and medicine explained.
June 6 2013 7:19 AM

Deaths With Dignity

Rear Adm. Chester Nimitz Jr. and Joan Nimitz planned their suicides with military precision.

(Continued from Page 1)

Nurses were employed at their home to attend to Joan Nimitz’s worsening health problems, but the couple did not want to squander all of their money on such care. They were both appalled at the vast sums spent at the end of life to sustain people who were frail and sick and not likely to get better. They could clearly envision—and they rejected—the idea of spending their remaining years in a nursing facility.

The admiral particularly worried his heart condition might suddenly worsen and his wife would be unable to commit suicide by herself. Joan Nimitz confided to the children that she, too, feared that without her husband's help, she would not be in a position to ingest the barbiturate pills they had been stockpiling.

The admiral told his daughter, “That's the one last thing I have to do for your mother. ''

Advertisement

According to Van Dorn, her father had a large file box labeled with a 3-by-5 note card upon which he had written with a magic marker, “When C.W.N. [Chester Williams Nimitz] Dies.” In it were his insurance policies, documents concerning his Navy pension, and so forth. This was intended to save the family from the frustrating task of scrambling around in search of these papers. He was a commander, and he wanted his death and its aftermath to be conducted with the precision of a military operation.

Throughout the fall and winter, the Nimitz couple explicitly discussed with the children their plan. It followed the suggestions in the book Final Exit. When ready, they would begin with an anti-nausea suppository, followed by the sleeping pills, chased with a little of their beloved Mount Gay Rum with a squeeze of lime and soda, and maybe a little peanut butter to settle their stomachs. The last step involved securing a plastic bag over their heads as a precaution in case the medication was not sufficiently lethal. The admiral was going to let his wife take the pills first and make sure she was dead before he followed her example. Van Dorn concluded, “None of it was particularly pretty. But they were just so determined and upbeat about all of it.”

On New Year’s Day in 2002, the Nimitz clan, including some grandchildren, assembled for lunch. They discussed the football games, embraced, and quietly praised the patriarch and matriarch. Everyone was relatively subdued; the admiral and his wife were emotionally reserved individuals. The family members did not try to persuade them to change their minds, because they knew that this would be fruitless. They were confident that neither parent was depressed and their decision was entirely consistent with long-held beliefs.

The admiral had wanted one more chance to write tax-deductible checks for his children, their husbands, and grandchildren, and these were dated Jan. 2, 2002, and left in the apartment. He had seen a lot of deaths in World War II. Joan Nimitz had experienced the deaths of siblings, including one of her brothers, a British Royal Air Force pilot shot down in combat. Death was no stranger to this devoted couple and held no fear. After their family went home, Chester and Joan Nimitz wrote a suicide note that read in part, “Our decision was made over a considerable period of time and was not carried out in acute desperation. Nor is it the expression of a mental illness. We have consciously, rationally, deliberately, and of our own free will taken measures to end our lives today because of the physical limitations on our quality of life.”

After the police officially notified Van Dorn of the deaths, she brought out her father’s comprehensive list of people and telephone numbers. She divvied up the list with one of her sisters, and they called all of  her parents’ closest friends to tell them what had happened before any word got into the newspapers. Almost universally the response was, “Yup, that’s your parents!”

In the spring when the ground thawed, the family convened in Cape Cod, Mass. It was a place filled with memories of summer barbecues and sailing expeditions. The ashes of the couple were interred; the younger children placed small keepsakes into the grave, such as a particular piece of Lego that reminded them of their grandparents; and family members spoke lovingly and respectfully of their progenitors.

In the ensuing years, Van Dorn has supported a number of nonprofit organizations, including Compassion & Choices, which along with the Death with Dignity National Center evolved from the original Hemlock Society. The efforts of these groups led to passage of the Vermont bill. Van Dorn appreciates that the law would not have directly helped her parents, as neither had a “terminal” disease. She understands that a civil rights movement, such as death with dignity, takes politically expedient and incremental steps. She anticipates that in the future the infirmities and suffering of advanced age may also qualify people to request this option (as is presently true in Belgium, Switzerland, and the Netherlands). Meanwhile, one more American state will allow its citizens further control at the end of life. And Van Dorn is looking forward to the day “when kids and their parents will regularly sit around the dining room table and talk about end-of-life issues the way you talk about college planning. Because, after all it is just another kind of planning.”

Dr. Lewis Cohen is a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, a Guggenheim fellow, and the author of No Good Deed: A Story of Medicine, Murder Accusations, and the Debate Over How We Die. His forthcoming book will be about the death with dignity movement and its physician advocates.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Nov. 25 2014 3:21 PM Listen to Our November Music Roundup Hot tracks for our fall playlist, exclusively for Slate Plus members.