Bits and Bites on dying with dignity

Bits and Bites of Everyday Life

Sympathy, compassion, and mercy . . .

Whatever it takes, let’s make dignified dying happen

By Alberte Villeneuve-Sinclair
True North Perspective

Alberte Villeneuve-Sinclair is the author of The Neglected Garden and two French novels. Visit her website to learn more

Image: Detail of photo of Alberte Villeuneuve-SinclairImage: Cartoon asking 'How may I die?' provided by the author.In a 2015 article entitled “Make it happen”, I discussed two important topics: gender equality and the right to die with dignity. My readers really appreciated the article and I told them I would revisit the subject of “dying with dignity” at a later date. The time has come as the government is set to have a law regarding doctor-assisted death to eligible patients set up across Canada by early June.

This would permit a physician to assist a patient who requests an end to his life, providing he is mentally competent when the request is made and it is proven the patient has a “grievous and irremediable” medical situation that imposes intolerable suffering. This would also include terminal conditions where no hope of recovery is possible.

I remember reading with profound sadness how Janice Kennedy, a retired journalist, lost her only sister, Sheila, to ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis also known as Lou Gehrig's) Disease. This disease is most insidious as it slowly robs a person’s body of all its functions while leaving the mind intact. ALS sufferers have no other option but to watch their body slowly wither and die. As Janice explained:

“Each time I thought of Sheila after her diagnosis, I was reminded of that Poe Short story where a man is chained in a space slowly being walled in, brick by brick.”

Again, in Janice’s words, at the time of Sheila’s death, “she was completely immobilized, unable to move legs, feet, toes, arms, hands, fingers, torso, neck, head. She had a feeding tube, and breathing was a struggle. She was often uncomfortable and in pain, but she could rarely let anyone know. Communication was limited, reduced to eye movement.”

Sheila believed in the right to die with dignity and the right to a physician-assisted death. So did Janice. No one wants to see a loved one suffer for years on end.

In today’s world, we are much kinder to our cats and dogs than to human beings who must deal with unbearable pain on a daily basis.

“Dogs do not have many advantages over people, but one of them is extremely important, euthanasia is not forbidden by law in their case; animals have the right to a merciful death.” (Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.)

In our journey through life, we strive to make the right choices, ones that match our authentic self. We create a world filled with love, a world that is meaningful, where we can put our strengths and talents to good use. We try to make our journey on this earth as much fun as possible while making a difference in people’s lives.

But life is sometimes cruel; it does not always deal you a good hand.  No one deserves to die a slow and painful death or to become a complete vegetable. Why should anyone have to suffer unbearable pain?  Why should a person have to orchestrate his own death because no one wants to help?

The Liberal government says it will “move quickly with care and diligence” so why are we getting the message from palliative care hospitals such as Bruyère Continuing Care that they will not be offering doctor-assisted death to eligible patients? I fully agree with the Dying With Dignity Canada organization which says it is not acceptable for entire organizations to conscientiously object to it. (Bruyère is a publicly funded Catholic health institution. It maintains doctor-assisted death is incompatible with its values.) I personally think it’s a shame. I remember a nurse saying she couldn’t help but cry to see the suffering one of my uncles had to endure at the end of his life. Intense pain and suffering should not be the defining moments of anyone’s last days on earth. It should not be the single image that is left behind for the loved ones who cared.

But progress is being made. In Toronto, Ontario, an 81 year-old man known as A.B. was granted the right to assisted death. He passed away on March 18 after the court granted him legal permission to end his life. In a statement from his family, they explained,

“Today, A.B., our dear husband, father and grandfather passed away in peace and dignity with the assistance of his caring physicians. It was his life and his choice and we support him in that choice unconditionally.”

Sympathy, compassion, and mercy . . . Let's make it happen!

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