Friday, February 6, 2015

dying with dignity: the family stories

The Supreme Court of Canada has voted that "people with grievous and irremediable medical conditions should have the right to ask a doctor to help them die."

In 1988, when my father was facing imminent death from stomach cancer, there was no official help for him. He stockpiled doses of morphine and told a doctor friend that when the time came, he'd "take care of things," the friend told us afterwards. On July 6, we were all gathered in my parents' home in Edmonton, watching Wimbledon and keeping Dad company. That evening, he slowly went upstairs, saying he was very tired. He didn't say goodbye or mention any plans. We'd been told he had weeks left, if not more. But he died early the next morning in my mother's arms.

When the palliative care nurse came, she swept all the pill bottles from beside the bed into her bag and snapped it shut. It wasn't until much later that we all realized what had happened - she knew what Dad had done and hid the evidence. He'd told no one. All alone, he had decided the time had come, and he went upstairs, took all the morphine he'd saved, and died quietly, with dignity, without pain.

When I realized, I admired this courageous man all the more but mourned that he'd had no-one with him. He knew we'd have tried to stop him - we didn't want to forfeit a minute of his last bits of time. But he wanted to control his own death. And he didn't want to endanger us with involvement in an act that was then illegal.

Strangely, his younger brother, Edgar, also had experience with assisted suicide; he used to joke about "killing my wife." It was no joke; he'd been eviscerated by the experience. His beloved Betty was dying of uterine cancer and insisted that he help her die. I don't know how he did it, but they set a night, and, he told me, she berated him for not getting on with it fast enough. After her death, he put on one of his favourite pieces of music - Bach's B Minor Mass.

"But," he said, "that was a mistake, because I could never listen to it again."

I honour my Kaplan relatives for taking charge of life's final event as they did. I honour the Supreme Court of Canada for making sure that others, condemned to a long and painful death, can have the option of choosing another way.


  1. I think it's a good decision and it's up to all of us to make sure the Feds don' t procrastinate. Your dad was a brave man.

  2. I agree on all three counts, Theresa.