Submitted Story - My grandmother’s cruel and undignified death

  • October 16, 2015

I strongly believe that people have a right to decide how and when they die under certain circumstances and with appropriate safeguards. My belief has evolved after watching my grandmother die a cruel and undignified death and, this year, as a result of my mother taking her own life when she feared it was going to become intolerable.

During the English summer of 1976, one of the hottest on record, my family watched the slow, unbearable death of my maternal grandmother.

In March she suffered three strokes within one week, the third rendering her paralysed down her right hand side, unable to walk, talk clearly and doubly incontinent. We were unable to provide nursing care at home for her and, reluctantly, moved her to a nursing home.

Whilst this was supposedly a well-run, pleasant home – far better than several we visited – the treatment of my grandmother was not ideal. She was often left without the sides of her bed raised, and would fall out – on one occasion, finding a pen and managing to write the words ‘Help me’ on the skirting board. She was left naked on her bed when it was hot, and my brother and I visited her on one such occasion. Fortunately, she was asleep otherwise she would have been extremely upset about being seen in such a situation.

When lucid, she begged my mum, my brother and myself, as well as the nursing staff to be allowed to die. One nurse told her that she was a ‘wicked old woman’ to say such a thing. To grandma, life had no dignity, no purpose and, at 84, she was angry that no help was available to enable her to die peacefully and end her appalling suffering. Six months after the first stroke she died alone; her last journey was intolerable for her, and very painful for my family to watch.

Around this time, my mother started talking to my brother and me about her end of life wishes and making it very clear that she did not want to suffer the indignity and suffering experienced by her mother. She became involved in the voluntary euthanasia movement in the UK and continued this involvement when she emigrated to New Zealand to join her two children in 2000, at the age of 80.

Mum was very intelligent, highly articulate, financially very well-provided for and independent, enjoying living alone. Her involvement with the Voluntary Euthanasia Society in NZ resulted in her assisting Maryan Street draft her private member’s bill, as well as playing an active role in the Wellington Branch of the organisation. She believed that she, and only she, should determine how and when to end her life – and to have the right to assistance to do this on her terms, in as comfortable and peaceful way as possible.

Having watched her own mother’s suffering, was no doubt the initial driver for this belief. However, her strong independence and passion to live life to the fullest meant she never wanted to rely on others as her infirmities increased with age. She was adamant that once she became unable to live the life she chose and became very incapacitated that she wanted to be able to have a choice about when the time was right for her to die – and to be provided with the means and support to enable this.

As a result, mum acquired drugs which she could take once she determined life no longer held value for her. As a family, we knew about the drugs and that we were unable to assist her should she decide to end her life. She was well aware that assisting a suicide in NZ is currently punishable in law and would not allow us to be involved, should she decide to end her life. We supported her in her decision and did nothing to dissuade her. As a family, we completely respected her beliefs.

In February of this year, at the age of 93, mum took the drugs she had acquired and died very quickly, alone. The only note she left for us stated, ‘I have a stroke’. This was the one thing she feared: loss of independence and movement which would almost certainly have resulted in her needing to be cared for full time, losing her faculties and being able to enjoy those activities gave her pleasure and contentment. The coroner’s report into mum’s death indicated that what she experienced was a heart attack but, whatever the cause, she decided to act quickly before she deteriorated to a level where she was unable to access her drugs. I do not see mum’s death as suicide; she was not depressed, suffering from any form of dementia or irrational. She had a diary filled with activities, trips and outings for the remainder of this year; she was looking forward to my nephew’s wedding in November. She took her own life as a rational act, based on wanting as kind and gentle a death as possible, with the full knowledge that she, and only she, could bring this about.

I have no doubt that had mum had a choice, such as PAD (physician assisted dying) or medically assisted dying, she would not have taken her own life at this time, but waited to determine the outcome of whatever had frightened her. She would have then been able to determine a time to die, surrounded by her family, say her goodbyes and be supported in this final act of bravery and courage. Instead, she had to face death alone.

As a family we miss mum hugely. I am inspired by her courage and bravery and am proud that she fought for a change in legislation. Let us hope this change comes soon.