August 21, 2014 - 12:49 PM
B.C. WOMAN'S STORY HAS SPARKED WAVES OF EMOTION AS READERS OPEN UP WITH THEIR OWN STORIES
Smart. Beautiful. Strong. Brave. Not the usual adjectives used to describe the choice of suicide, but these are just a few of the words readers used in response to the story of Gillian Bennett’s choice to take her own life.
Almost without exception, the responses to Bennett’s decision to die, with her family’s support, were positive.
Bennett wanted her death to start a conversation. What is most surprising is that the conversation — about something so taboo that it is rarely discussed openly, and hardly ever in the media — has been loud and clear, and strongly weighted in favour of our right to choose when and how we die if we are suffering from a debilitating or terminal illness.
Many of you wrote that you had felt helpless watching your own beloved family members suffer the cruel indignities of dementia.
Bennett, who asked as her last wish that her thought process leading up to her final act be shared with the public through a blog, deadatnoon.com, was intensely private, but shortly before her death had riffed on a line from the movie Chinatown. “For the first time in my life, I want publicity,” she told her son.
Bennett wanted publicity not for herself, but for those who are old enough or wise enough or sane enough to consider their own ending.
She asks us to consider not just how a painful, frightening, prolonged illness like dementia might be for the one who suffers from it, but also how it affects others.
This final act — a gulp of barbiturates she may have secured through some unknown and possibly underground source — was not about her. It was about her family. It was also about you and me.
She thought about the prospect of vegetating for years in a hospital, whichever resource the government could make available to her. She thought about the $50,0000 to $75,000 annually it would cost to keep her alive, and about the nurses who would have to turn and diaper, sponge and feed her once vital body.
She thought about all the baby boomers with their extraordinary life expectancies who might end up like her, alive in body but dying in mind and spirit, and the strain that would put on the resources of their children and grandchildren.
Her choice wasn’t just personal. It was something she undertook as a duty to those around her, and an example for the rest of us.
Would I have the courage to end my life if I were in a similar situation?
I don’t know.
I think about my own grandmother, who languished for years with severe dementia in a care home in Haney, B.C.
I think of my favourite picture of her, standing in her garden and smiling, scarlet poppies as high as her shoulders. I think of what she suffered as the dementia began: terror, confusion, isolation, loss. And later in that care home, the long years she sat slumped in a hallway, pale and helpless. Unable to feed or wash or toilet herself. Warehoused, really, once it became too difficult for family members to care for her.
Would she have wanted that? Would she have preferred an alternative?
By the time she reached that point, it was too late to ask.
So Bennett is asking us to ask now. What do we want? As medical care advances and provides new ways to keep our bodies alive even when our minds are no longer functioning, is it not our duty to ask at what cost?
Well, Mrs. Bennett. We are asking. We are tweeting. We are posting. We are talking. And it is all in response to what you have asked of us.
After reading your story, Leslie Chatelain, whose mother is 10 years into Alzheimer’s, wrote: “To the rest of us, with parents suffering from this very degrading disease, maybe one day, if we suffer the same fate, there will be a choice we can make ourselves.”
Dorothy Kent shared the traumatic experience of watching her aunt starve to death on life support because although she was brain-dead, there was no other way to legally and comfortably end her life.
Lauren Watson-Bradley wrote of her grandmother’s “degrading” struggle and described how she spent the last years of her life “embarrassed, angry and depressed” as dementia took hold of her.
Eric Rosenquist wrote that his father, after suffering for 14 years with Parkinson’s, ended his life with a hose and a car.
What if there were a more humane option?
Never, in my career as a journalist, have I seen such a powerful response, so united, so in agreement over any story, let alone so controversial a topic.
On the same day that news of Bennett’s death broke, doctors at a Canadian Medical Association meeting in Toronto were discussing policy on euthanasia and physician-assisted death.
After debate, with input from doctors and submissions from patients across the country, a vote was taken. Ninety-per cent of those attending voted for “the right of all physicians, within the bonds of existing legislation, to follow their conscience when deciding whether to provide so-called medical aid in dying.”
(The CMA defines “medical aid in dying” as euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide.)
Let’s hope the conversation Bennett wanted us to have continues, and that her voice, and each of yours, is heard.
Video - Vancouver Sun
Gillian's Blog - Dead at Noon
News from © Canada.com/Vancouver Sun/Denise Ryan, 2014