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Shirley Vann and her daughter Linda Jean McNall are shown in a family handout photo. Alberta’s Judge Charles Gardener sentenced Ms. McNall to eight months of time already served on the rare charge of aiding suicide in Ms. Vann’s death. (HANDOUT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Shirley Vann and her daughter Linda Jean McNall are shown in a family handout photo. Alberta’s Judge Charles Gardener sentenced Ms. McNall to eight months of time already served on the rare charge of aiding suicide in Ms. Vann’s death. (HANDOUT/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Alberta judge gives U.S. woman time served for aiding in her mother’s suicide Add to ...

Linda Jean McNall, the American woman who made a death pact with her ailing mother, was sentenced to time served on Tuesday on the rare charge of aiding a suicide.

Ms. McNall, who has been detained in an Alberta psychiatric hospital since May, was spending the night in an Edmonton jail before boarding a plane for the United States on Wednesday. In handing down the sentence, Judge Charles Gardner accepted a recommendation made by the Crown and the defence, and said he hoped Ms. McNall would get the help she needs.

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It was the end of the Canadian chapter in a bizarre saga that began in Sierra Vista, Ariz., where Ms. McNall and her mother, Shirley Vann, 79, a former realtor, made a suicide pact last spring. Ms. Vann had been treated for colon cancer; Ms. McNall, a nurse, had hepatitis C, diabetes and depression. Both women were divorced and had lived together for decades, travelling the country, volunteering in animal shelters and wilderness sites.

But as they aged, their health faltered, their medical bills mounted and they grew increasingly despondent. That’s when they hatched their plan to pack their dogs into the car, make a final trip to the area around Jasper National Park in Alberta, and end their lives in what Ms. McNall later told the CBS is “the most beautiful place on earth.”

Ms. McNall and Ms. Vann aren’t the first duo to plan a joint death because one of the two has intractable health problems and the other can’t imagine carrying on alone. Before Christmas, an elderly couple in Toronto jumped from the balcony of their high-rise apartment, and last spring, another elderly and infirm Toronto couple, who had survived the Third Reich, ended their lives because he could no longer care for her and neither of them could bear to be institutionalized.

One of the most famous death pacts involved the writer Arthur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon, and his third wife, Cynthia. He was suffering from Parkinson’s and terminal leukemia when he ended his life in 1983. His wife, then only in her mid-50s, joined him. “Double suicide has never appealed to me,” she wrote in a postscript to his suicide note, “but now Arthur’s incurable diseases have reached a stage where there is nothing else to do.”

Suicide pacts are “extraordinary” because “most people want to go on living despite the passing of somebody who is dear to them,” said psychiatrist Isaac Sakinofsky, an expert in suicide studies at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. It usually happens because “people are so close, they don’t want to be in the world without the other person,” he said.

Although Ms. McNall and Ms. Vann were mother and daughter rather than lovers, they were fervently committed to each other in this life, and determined to leave it together. But killing yourself is not as simple as it sounds, as Ms. McNall found out.

After arriving in Alberta, they pitched a tent at Rock Lake near Hinton, about 350 kilometres west of Edmonton. They injected themselves and their dogs with insulin, swallowed some sleeping pills and opened a propane tank. Ms. Vann and the dogs died, but Ms. McNall survived, even though she drove into town and bought more propane. “Turned it on. Went to sleep. Woke up again,” she told the court. “And at that point, I knew that we were out of money and I was so disoriented from the propane I couldn’t think of any other way to kill myself there. So I decided to drive us into the hospital.”

That’s where authorities found them. While Ms. Vann was dead, Ms. McNall was admitted to hospital, then charged and placed in a psychiatric institution. She hasn’t given up hope, she told the CBC, that she will eventually rejoin her mother in another world. Meanwhile, she is determined to go on living, despite doctors’ fears in Alberta that she is still a suicide risk. “I want to try real hard to make my mom proud,” she said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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