Dying with Dignity also known as Euthanasia (a less appealing term) is something we only think about when we are personally touched by the suffering of a loved one. I had never thought too much about it until recently. It has been a big year already for me. After Terry’s health challenges from November to January we were just getting our balance back when my mother who had been living with cancer, became gravely ill, her suffering extending for weeks as she waited impatiently to die.
She was so brave facing her failing body with a clear mind till the last breath. Cancer can be a very cruel disease and watching her deterioration really made me think a lot about the lack of choice in Australia to ‘die with Dignity’. ‘Dying with dignity’ as a personal choice has a growing following, largely brought into the Australian public eye by Andrew Denton. Dying with Dignity, also know by a less kind word Euthanasia is the offering of a personal choice around one’s dying to avoid unnecessary pain and suffering. There are staunch believers in both sides of this debate but I wonder if should it come down to the very personal choice of the person who is dying?
My mother was ready to die, and she expressed this to us, her family and her carers many times. An animal lover herself, she would say, “I would not let an animal suffer like this. Take me to the vet, I am ready to go.”
The strange thing is, thinking about it, we wouldn’t let an animal suffer. Most caring people will always put dying or badly injured animals out of their misery rather than watching their suffering continue. The loss of a loved one is hard enough without the added feeling of helplessness that occurs when having to bear witness to their long drawn out and perhaps unnecessary suffering. There is also the loss of personal dignity as they often need to be in nappies due to incontinence or have colostomy bags changed by carers. Stripped of their dignity they are often left in the care of paid strangers to be washed and turned as they wait for a finality of organ failure. I wonder how many of us under this current choice-less system are left with terrible mental images of the emotional trauma suffered by our dying loved ones along side their own lingering feelings of helplessness and grief.
At first diagnosis there is always hope and so there should be. Any illness is a journey with hidden jewels. My mother’s choice was the chemo and radiation pathway. We all supported ‘her choice’ in this and many new friendships and meetings during this time were forged between my mother and father and cancer support groups who helped with the daily travel to the hospital. Sadly, though for her weakened elderly body the drugs ended up intensifying her suffering. We all came to accept this, her final bout with cancer would be terminal. The first few months of the decline of her illness were a blessing, giving both mum the family time to accept her fate and prepare for her passing. We all accepted she was dying, yet we still laughed and talked and during this time and Mum was still well enough to engage with us. She still felt loved and supported at home with her family.
But the last four weeks seemed unnecessarily cruel and drawn out. As her loving family, we found it heart wrenching to watch her painful decline day after day leaving her a mere skeleton unable to eat, move or speak more than 2-3 words, yet still conscious enough to suffer both physically and emotionally. It was my elderly father, himself with Parkinson’s, who was by her side day and night until this point. It was he, her devoted husband, who felt a deep sense of helplessness and despair verging on depression. In the last 10 days, we, her children and grandchildren all took turns to join my father by her side.
Dad couldn’t bear the thought of her dying in their shared bed of 57 years and Mum then needed round the clock care that he was no longer able to give, so she was moved to a facility to die. It was in a home for the elderly which in itself was depressing. As we walked past the inmates rooms, a terrible aroma of incontinence and leaking colostomy bags met our nostrils, and the sound of some residents with advanced dementia calling out for loved ones who couldn’t hear them met our ears. Some wandered looking lost in the hallways. Mum’s room was private thank God, with an ensuite that sadly she was too weak to use.
Feeling helpless to ease her suffering, we sat by her side ready to offer her any little moment of comfort. An ice-block on her lips, a drop of eye lubrication, move a pillow to ease the pain for her skeletal frame. We diffused essential oils into the room to cover the terrible aroma of death that crept into our nostrils. Nurses came twice a day to check her constant drip feeding of an intravenous drug to lessen the nausea or add more opioid pain patches.
Sitting by her side in those last days of her life waiting for her agony to end was a very emotional time. It was a time I felt overwhelming compassion for my mother, my father, my sisters and our children. It was a bitter sweet relief when she did die, albeit alone, just after midnight shortly after the attending nurse did her check asking her if she needed anything. My mother had said “No” and minutes later she was gone. Within half an hour we were sitting with her sharing our private and final farewells.
Knowing her suffering was over brought relief, but there was also the sad and natural grief of loss. The loss of a wife, mother and grandmother who had been such a strong matriarchal figure for our family. I feel lucky to have a close, loving and resilient family and we were all together to say goodbye and support each other in the planning her funeral. We had talked to mum about her wishes and really wanted to make it a very special occasion.
My mother had a great life, traveling the world, exploring other cultures, always curious and open to adventure. She had a wonderful family of four children, 13 grandchildren and a loving husband of 57 years. She was ready to go and I have to wonder how it would have been if we could have all been by her bedside to say goodbye. She may have been spared those last 2 weeks of agony. She could have slipped away with our sweet goodbyes on her lips.
Her funeral was a wonderful loving and heartfelt send-off.
I also have to wonder about the financial cost to families. Professional private and personal care for a dying loved one costs and many people may not be able to afford the so-called luxury Mum was given. Extending life with drugs and reviving people who are terminal can drag out the dying process for months. I am sure not everyone could afford a private room and nursing care close to their own home. These costs together with travel and funeral fees often leave the remaining spouse or loved ones both grief stricken and financially struggling.
I am not saying there is a one size fits all here but there is a lot to think about and it seems that offering a personal choice to die with dignity is as important as the personal choice we now enjoy for birth. After all I see both birth and death hold equal importance for a life well lived.
Dying with dignity does have an appealing ring to it. I invite your comments.
Below is a beautiful poem I read at my mother’s funeral, Enjoy.
PEACE MY HEART by Rabindranath Tagore
Peace, my heart, let the time for the parting be sweet.
Let it not be a death but completeness.
Let love melt into memory and pain into songs.
Let the flight through the sky end
in the folding of the wings over the nest.
Let the last touch of your hands be gentle
like the flower of the night.
Stand still, O Beautiful End, for a moment,
and say your last words in silence.
I bow to you and hold up my lamp
to light you on your way.
by Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941)
Links that you may find interesting:
Go Gentle Australia: http://www.gogentleaustralia.org.au/
Voluntary Euthanasia Party: http://www.vep.org.au/