The problem with euthanasia

Nine months ago my mum asked me to buy an axe and chop her head off. I joked with her. Told her it would be a messy way to go. She was lying in a palliative care ward, dying of cancer. Chopping her head off might have been messy, but at least it would have been quick.

Death isn’t like birth. It doesn’t happen over a couple of days. And there’s no-one standing by ready to assist if it looks like it’s going to go longer. Dying takes time. Before I watched my mum die, I’d always believed so outspokenly in euthanasia. I was adamant that I would help my loved ones find a peaceful end if I were ever in that position. I remember conversations when mum and I joked about pushing her wheelchair off a cliff if she made it to a hundred. But it’s just not that simple. It’s not a question of legality. Or morality. It’s a question of how selfish you are.

Even if I’d been able to slip mum a magic tablet to help her die painlessly in her sleep, would I have done it? I’m no longer so sure. The process of dying isn’t for the patient; it’s for the carers. I wasn’t ready for her to die. I needed it to take time. Over those weeks, I needed to process how I was going to feel. I had to prepare myself for her death, and I did it by sitting by her bed day and night, watching her struggle to breath, refusing to eat, and growing angrier and more distant. It was only after watching her suffer, that I was fully ready for her to go.

It’s selfish. I know that. I’ve struggled with that since she died. It surprised me to learn how selfish I was, even though I knew the pain she was in. It shocked me to realise how willing I was to compromise her quality of life, just so she could stick around for a bit longer. I’ve excused my selfishness by believing that I wouldn’t be like that with just anyone. I needed my mother. I still do. So I guess my need for her to live trumped her need to want help to die. I hope I would not be so selfish with my children or my partner. I hope I could recognise their pain and let them go.

We had never really discussed euthanasia until she asked me to chop off her head. We’d had the time, but instead we talked only of the holidays we would have, or the nights my children would come and stay with her, when she was better. We just never let ourselves go there; preferring to pretend that she would get better. That’s the problem with euthanasia. It’s only an option if you are prepared to consider your mortality. And for my mum, that didn’t happen until it was very obvious she wasn’t coming home from hospital and by then it was too late to plan anything as difficult as assisted suicide, even if I’d been willing to help.

One afternoon my uncle arrived from interstate to farewell my mum, his last remaining sibling. A farmer, and a father of a child who had been very ill for a long time, he was pragmatic about saying goodbye. We didn’t talk much, but he did comment on how cruel he thought dying was, that if she (my mother) were a cow, they would have shot her by now. She was in a Catholic palliative care hospital, and his only other comment was that the bloody priests could fiddle with kids but they couldn’t let people die with respect. He was right. On both counts. But that afternoon, sitting next to her, in the small room, holding her hand as he said this, I was so furious I wanted to scream. I couldn’t believe he could be so callous, so unsentimental.

He didn’t come to the funeral. He explained that he’d rather say his goodbyes when she was alive than dead, and then he hugged me and left. He was practiced in the ways of death. He’d shot suffering animals. He’d watched a whole ward of children die, with his daughter the only one to live. He was okay with it. But I wasn’t.

For months before she went into hospital, my mum was so sick she could barely eat. Losing weight rapidly, she was a walking skeleton. I became obsessed with feeding her. I would cook six different dishes, sourcing ingredients like a crazed chef, and then drive it all across town, often ignoring the needs of my own young family, to try and tempt her with tiny mouthfuls, like a baby bird. It was perverse. She was dying, even then, and we all refused to see it. Instead I was force-feeding her like I would my son when he avoided vegetables for the third day in a row.

The sicker she got, the more I mothered her. For a while she was happy with me treating her like a child. And I was happy with that role, because if I had something practical to do then I could pretend that I was controlling what happened. I could believe that we were somehow beating the cancer.

The day she went to hospital for the last time was one of the brightest she had over those last months. I sat with her for most of the day, making her eat the hospital food that she clearly didn’t want. That day though she placated me. She even managed to sit in a chair for two hours, and talk. She had a nurse who clearly liked her and kept popping in with little extras to make her comfortable. My mum told stories and the nurse kept returning for more. She wanted my mum’s advice on things, and my mum clearly loved being asked. I realised that day that I hadn’t asked her advice for months. Instead I’d stolen something from her. I’d been so determined she would live, so terrified of considering the possibility she wouldn’t, that I’d babbled for six months. Told her all sorts of crap about what was going on. Chatted like it was pouring out of me, with no other outlet, and not once had I really asked what she wanted. If she was scared. If she knew she was dying. If she could tell me what to do.

And that’s the thing with dying. For the person doing the dying, they are ahead of the rest of us. They are waiting desperately for the audience to catch up, for us to hopefully find peace before they go, so they can unburden themselves of the conversation. But if we are too scared to see it, then all they can do is make crude jokes about cutting off their head with an axe.

When she was moved into palliative care, she shut me out. She was cross if I turned up with food. She’d stopped eating altogether, and it was only to please me that she’d occasionally accept a morsel. She was ready to go. But I still wouldn’t let her.

Over the last 24 hours of her life, we were all there. My dad, my brother, and my brother’s partner. Sitting by her bed, not really talking, holding her hand, and answering when she’d barely manage to say I love you. That night, we ordered Thai food from down the road and sat in the waiting area eating takeaway, while my mum dozed on and off in her room. I remember thinking how perverse it was that we were fighting over the last spring roll, while she was getting ready to die.

I don’t know what I expected death to be. But it wasn’t the morphine-induced state that my mother was in. As we crowded around her bed that night, waiting for her to die, the nurse kept coming in and commenting on how strong her pulse was. Death didn’t seem close. At one point, maybe an hour before she died, she even managed to sit up and pull me down on top of her, whispering in her scratchy broken voice about how she loved us. And then over and over in forced words she asked if it was time. That night, watching how totally not my mother she had become, I was ready for her to die. I wanted her to stop breathing. But instead she kept talking. Trying to tell us to look after each other. And I realised she wasn’t quite ready now. We’d somehow swapped positions. Mine was still fuelled by selfishness. I didn’t want to watch the agony of it anymore. I just wanted her to go.

And then in thirty seconds, she just stopped breathing. Just like that. No warning. No death rattle. Just silence.

After she died, I was elated. I’d sat in that room for so many weeks and slept on the fold-out chair for so many nights, drunk too many cups of coffee, and worried. Suddenly, it was all done. I wasn’t consumed anymore. Nothing else was going to happen to her. We went to Williamstown that afternoon. Wandered through the streets of my mother’s childhood. We ate ice cream and played on the docks. And I felt free.

That feeling lasted a day. The elation was gone by the next morning. When I woke, I was confused. I was ready to go and see her and then I remembered that she wasn’t there anymore. And I realised, in that moment, that if I was given the option, I would rather her remain forever dying in a hospital bed where I could at least sit alongside and hold her warm hand, than be gone. Selfish maybe, but she was my mum.


Nova Weetman

Nova Weetman has had short fiction published in Island, Wet Ink, Kill Your Darlings, Overland Express, Mslexia, Cardigan Press, and Tirra Lirra. She won the HarperCollins Varuna Manuscript Award and the FAW Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript. Her first YA novel will be published next year through UQP.

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  1. Thank you for the thoughtful warnings about who lets who go. That is very interesting. Great piece, Nova, thank you.

  2. Nova, you make me wonder what an abnormal daughter I must have been. I can’t pray because I don’t believe there’s anything listening but I begged and longed for both of my parents to die quickly. Then I was guilty I felt relief when they did. But I’ve always believed quality of life so much more important than quantity. I hope my wish for their deaths was more about relieving their suffering than relieving mine. Your experience does make me wonder.

  3. Sigh. Thank you for sharing Nova. My mum too died of cancer, 5+ years ago now. Our journey was different…but I witnessed others walk a similar path to yours. My mum, fairly early on, asked me if I would euthanase her. I told her i’d look into it, but that now was not the time – we had other options to consider. Her pending death did not scare me – I felt my entire life up until that point had prepared me for the journey – but I was broken hearted, grieving in the privacy of my room so that she could not see my heartbreak, as we journeyed towards her passing. I was her rock. Present. Fearless. Playing the clown to make her smile on those days where anything but happiness was the emotion of the day. She used to say if she had a gun she’d shoot herself. It was heartbreaking. The active dying phase eventually knocked on our door. Like your Mamma, mine had a strong heart, and nurses said more than a few times that “we thought she’d have died by now but her heart is young and strong”. I think she didn’t actually want to leave us, even though she was unconscious. Sigh. At 9pm on 1st January 2008, when a nurse walked in with her intramuscular dose of valium, I found myself asking “Can you give that to her intravenously?”, knowing full well that may help her along. I had know idea what the nurse would say. Without hesitation, she agreed. And within minutes my beautiful Mamma was gone! She’d not have wanted us to see her like she was, having seizures, vomiting black gunk that stunk to high heaven….living with the retchid sound of the “death rattles”. She was a strong wild women. She’d have wanted to just go! She used to say she was going to commit suicide when she was 70 cos she didn’t want to get old. She was 64 when she died. Sometimes I wonder if I did it for me so I didn’t have to sit through the slow process that is death…but I think I did it for her – she’d asked me months prior. Would I do it again? We did with my granny who had a massive stroke from which she would never regain consciousness. We were lucky we knew what to ask for – “Maximum sedation” – and had a compassionate and efficient palliative care nurse at our service. Sigh. death IS slow. Well, too slow at times….too quick at others…depending where you sit with it at any given time. It’s noisy. It’s beautiful and stunning and an amazing gift in many ways. And what a life changing, monumental experience, birthing your Mamma to her next adventure! Thank you for sharing. You’ve made me again consider publishing the diary that I started when she was diagnosed, in the hope that one day it may just help someone. From this motherless mother’s heart to yours, I am sending love. xx

  4. Hi Nova
    Thank you for writing about the death of your mother.

    I am experiencing exactly what you went through with your mother. I have pancreatic cancer and although I have had a huge 8 hour whipples operation where my pancreas, gall bladder, small bowel and 29 glands were removed and then had 6 months of chemotherapy the chances of the cancer not growing back are very slim and it is expected to be sooner rather than later. I am limited in what I can do at the moment because I am suffering badly from fatigue.

    I have three wonderful, caring and loving daughters. But like you, they refuse to discuss dying with me. I am finding this very distressing because I want to talk to them about so many things and am not getting the support I need in this area. I can understand how, like you, they feel, and don’t want to let me go but I find I am having to discuss intimate details with friends to try and relieve my stress.

    Dying people really need to be able to discuss openly their end of life needs and relive memories of the past. Dying is as natural as living and should not be a taboo subject.

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