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Life with Gracie: Does ‘Me Before You’ encourage suicide?

Will Traynor kills himself and that has a lot of people mad.

I realize that essentially spoils the ending of the newly released “Me Before You,” but there’s really no way around that. It’s the only way to explain why Charlie Miller, Margo Waters and Sukie Glick are so angry.

Miller and Glick were born disabled. Waters has multiple sclerosis. They know what it’s like to live life as a wheelchair user, to sometimes feel hopeless, but those feelings, they say, have more to do with how society responds to them than how they view their lives; and given a choice between life and death, they’d choose life every time.

But they fear “Me Before You,” like “Million Dollar Baby” before it, encourages people with disabilities to choose suicide instead.

“We’re not criticizing its artistic merits,” Miller said. “Our concern is the character kills himself with assistance without really knowing his choices, post-spinal cord injury, and that reinforces the myth of ‘better dead than disabled.’”

The movie has sparked protests by disability advocates across the country. Here, advocates have taken a gentler approach and are staging what they call “awareness events” where they hand out fliers with information about the movie and doctor-assisted suicide.

“Me Before You,” which opened in theatres June 3, is based on the 2012 Jojo Moyes novel of the same name. It stars Sam Claflin as 30-year-old Will, who was paralyzed in an accident two years prior. Before that, he was a posh London hotshot who crushed people in business deals, who scaled rock faces at Yosemite, and who had his pick of glamorous girlfriends. Now unable to accept his life in a wheelchair, he’s plotting his assisted suicide when his mother hires small-town girl Louisa Clark as a personal care attendant, and the two fall in love.

Louisa (Emilia Clarke) does all she can to change Will’s mind, to persuade him to want to live again but fails.

It’s a tragic end to an otherwise weepy love story.

If you believe the overriding message in “Me Before You,” Miller, born 23 years ago with cerebral palsy and mitochondrial disorder, says love doesn’t exist and people with disabilities exist only to be pitied.

“Our lives are not tragic and pathetic,” he said. “This movie is. The idea that suicide is the way out is scary to me. I don’t want that to happen for anyone. People with disabilities deserve the same suicide prevention as everyone else.”

I spoke to Miller and the others on Friday. Saturday morning, I went to see “Me Before You” and was struck early on by this comment from Will’s mother to Louisa: “He has good days and bad days.”

Whether you’re disabled or not, isn’t that true for all of us? And yet, suicide, whether you’re disabled or not, has been on the rise since 1999 in everyone between the ages of 10 and 74, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2014, 13 people out of every 100,000 took their own lives, compared with 10.5 per 100,000 in 1999.

There are no numbers specific to people with disabilities, but this is what we need to keep in mind. People with disabilities may be the only group of people who receive social messages that suicide is a legitimate option. Not only are they not given equal access to prevention services, advocates say, they aren’t even encouraged to seek those services.

Charlie Miller told me something I will never forget. He said, “I love my disability because it’s a part of me and makes me me. It’s not Charlie has a disability. It’s just Charlie choosing to live his life as is.”

If only someone — say, the author/screenwriter — had imparted that bit of wisdom during the nearly two hours it takes to watch “Me Before You.” Sure, that accident left Will paralyzed from the neck down, but it didn’t change who he was inside. And it certainly didn’t change his worth as a human being.

That’s the message that is lost in “Me Before You,” but there are truths, if you will, I think all of us could benefit from and the first is we all have “our good days and our bad days.”

Will made a promise to his parents to give himself six months to change his mind about his death wish. He gave them that but, even after falling in love with Louisa, he couldn’t appreciate the wonderful life he had been given. That’s why I found myself feeling sorry for Will. Even though he could dream for Louisa, even though he could see her potential, he couldn’t see that for himself.

The second truth we can take away from “Me Before You” is “You can only help someone who wants to be helped.”

The third one I discovered in the prayer recited at Louisa’s birthday celebration: God gives each of us “the strength to meet the challenges we face on our journey.”

We have to choose to be helped, but if we can’t do that, just ask the one who makes all things possible.

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