Last August, my granny had a doctor help her die in her nursing home. She planned to do it on a “bank holiday, so my family will be able to take time off work and say their goodbyes.”
As if any of us would think: “Awh jeez, I have a big meeting that day. I wish I could squeeze in my final words with you, but I’m too busy. Can you reschedule?”
This scenario is now possible in Canada, and this week marks the third anniversary of our Supreme Court legalizing “medically assisted dying,” commonly known as “assisted-suicide.”
As my granny wanted, we all gathered—me, my sister, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, with her in the backyard gardens of her nursing home, pretending it was just a normal day. It was one of those summer days when nature and weather are in perfect harmony.
My granny had received the necessary approval to set up her own “death day” all by herself. When “D-Day” came, we took her out to her favourite restaurant for an oddly normal brunch, and then played cards back at the nursing home before the physician arrived.
He was a lovely guy, polite and gracious as he greeted us on the cosy verandah. Even though he was about to help end the life of my granny, he acted the only way any person could act to make me still admire and respect them. He wheeled her inside to her bed and administered the series of lethal injections.
This happened mid-August, two weeks after I got back from an exchange in Australia. Upon landing at Ottawa’s airport, fate gave me the rarest of opportunities. A string of days I could spend with a loved one before knowing they would be gone forever.
I saw her every day, sometimes more than once. She had cerebellar ataxia, a brain disease which was slowly paralysing her. Her mind, wit, and memories were all still there. I remember more than once her correcting me on certain memories. I’m sure she was sharper than I was!
I tried to soak her in as much as I could. I listened to every word, and stared into eyes I knew would soon never open again. Of course, we should all try to do this with our loved ones, but when you know the date and time that the person sitting beside you will take their last breath, this importance snaps into focus.
Being able to write out and plan my final words with her felt deeply gratifying. The night before “D-Day”, as the tension and weirdness at home increased, I wrote down a script of what my words could be, in case I broke down too much to remember what to say. Luckily, I managed to speak when the moment came, but I’m glad I had those notes ready.
All of these points I mention contrast with the more typical surprise and shock you feel when learning a loved one has died. For me, I was lucky to avoid the tortured racing my mind goes through, as I did with previous deaths— “Did I tell them I love them enough? Did we have at least one good laugh in our final conversation? What did we even talk about, what were our final words to each other?” (And yes, even in my final interaction with my granny, where “Dr. Death” stood nearby, I was able to get a good laugh out of her).
My granny chose me to speak at her funeral, which is something I’d never done before. Dealing with this responsibility at such a dizzying time was made so much easier, as we could begin trying to process her death beforehand. As well, we knew that she fiercely wanted this choice for herself. All I know is that her suffering was only certain to worsen if she was forced to hold on much longer, and she made that very clear to us.
There are no set rules for what to do when your grandma is about to be wheeled off to die, but by sharing our increasingly common personal experiences with this now-legal practice, I think we can all cope with it better.
After all, if you’re not dead yet, you’re only getting closer to it. I think we should live our days as brightly as we can (so we have evermore reasons to “keep the party going”). At the same time, we must ensure that everyone has the right to decide when and how “the party should end,” if they run into bad enough luck with their health.
The fact that I believe this now more than ever before— even after this practice took my own granny away— shows how important this human right is for us all.