Being a magazine features writer for 25 years has enabled me to hear hundreds of stories of hope, loss and family tragedy, and every now and again one has a strong emotional impact on me. This was one of them.
I interviewed an American man called Charles Griffith, who became a father in 1982, when his gorgeous little girl, Joy, was born.
One horrific day, when she was just 3-years-old, she was playing on an old-fashioned reclining seat and somehow got her head trapped in the gap between the chair and the footrest. By the time she was discovered, she’d stopped breathing. A police officer managed to resuscitate her, but she never regained consciousness.
Charles sat by her bedside every day for nine months, reading her stories and playing her favourite music. He’d rub her limbs, and swab her mouth with sugar water. But instead of recovering, scans shows the damaged parts of her brain were liquefying. There was no way Joy would ever wake up.
Then she started suffering from terrible, violent seizures.
Charles couldn’t bear to see his little girl suffer a moment longer. Crazed by grief, he made a decision. He rushed home and grabbed some sedatives he’d been prescribed, and his handgun (remember, owning a gun is fairly common in the States). At the hospital he crushed up the pills, and put them in his daughter’s feeding tube.
The gun was to keep the nurse from stopping him, but when she realised what he was doing, she let him go ahead, and even sat by Joy’s bed with him. But by now the little girl was so immune to sedatives they barely had an effect. Charles knew the doctors would soon be starting their rounds and would find out what he’d done, and he panicked. He couldn’t allow her to suffer this awful, hopeless existence any longer.
So he picked up his gun, and shot her twice in the chest.
The hospital security guard came running. Charles recognised him straight away – they’d spent many nights talking as he kept his lonely vigil by Joy’s bed. The guard held out his arms, and Charles collapsed into them, and they both started sobbing.
In 1985 Charles was found guilty of murdering his daughter, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The police officer who resuscitated Joy actually visited him to apologise. ‘If I’d known what would happen, I’d never have brought her back,’ he admitted.
Charles was happy to serve his time. It turned out the only thing more painful than seeing his daughter in a vegetative state, was knowing that he’d ended her life. After serving 10 years he was released; unable to forgive himself, he turned to drugs and alcohol to blot out his pain.
Of course none of it brought Joy back. Finally, in 2006, Charles got himself clean, and last year he opened a residential centre, called Joy’s House, to help other recovering addicts.
Today, it’s been nearly more than 30 years since his daughter died, but Charles still can’t talk about her without crying.
He’s still struggling to live with his guilt and the part he played in this family tragedy, but every day he tries to honour her memory by staying clean and sober, and helping other people to do the same.
What do you think about the decision Charles made that night? Do you believe it was mercy, or murder?
• photo ‘father and daughter standing on the beach on sunset’ courtesy of Shutterstock