Death by Choice

My good friend Phyllis Schacter sent me this article about a woman of 85, Gillian Bennet, who decided to take her own life when she felt that dementia was turning her “into a vegetable.” The article, “Dead at noon: B.C. woman ends her life rather than suffer indignity of dementia,” was written by Denise Ryan for the Vancouver Sun, August 25, 2014.

There seems to be a growing awareness among people who are heading into advanced forms of dementia of an option to carefully and consciously end their lives before reaching a point of no return to normal awareness. Below is Gillian’s story and that of her family of her journey into death.

Earlier on this website I posted a similar story about Alan Schacter, Phyllis ‘s husband. Alan chose to die by starvation and dehydration, rather than enter into the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, a disease that took both his parents. Since his death, Phyllis has had a great deal of contact with her husband, who  seems to be stunningly adjusted and brilliantly aware in his present reality. In fact, it was in after-death communication with Alan when he urged Phyllis to contact me. For their story, click here.

The deaths of Alan and Gillian bring up enormously important questions about dementia and whether or not dementia plays a purposeful role in the death process. They also provoke even broader questions about how and when a person should engineer his or her own death. Death by choice, or as assisted suicide is often called, death with dignity, is an enormously complex issue, legally and emotionally. The line between euthanasia and willful medical neglect of the ill and disabled is often difficult to determine. Each country, each US state, has its own laws, laws that are continuously under attack, for or against assisted suicide. Problems are especially prominent in the Netherlands where many cases of what seem to be more murder than euthanasia have been uncovered in hospitals.

Both Alan and Gillian died peacefully, without an iota of fear, and both expressly asked that their stories be made known publicly to raise popular awareness of death by choice.

On Monday morning shortly before noon, Gillian Bennett dragged a foam mattress from her home on Bowen Island to one of her favourite spots on the grass, facing a craggy rock cliff, the place she had chosen to die.

Bennett, who was 85 and in the early stages of dementia, chose to take her own life with a draught of good whiskey, a dose of Nembutal mixed with water and her husband of 60 years by her side.

“I held her hand,” said Jonathan, a retired philosophy professor. His voice is reflective, resonant, measured. “I agreed with her choice.”

Before the shadows of dementia began to cloak her mind, Bennett created a website, “Dead at Noon,” to be made public after her death, on which she makes a passionate case for physician-assisted options for the terminally ill and elderly.

Bennett was painfully aware of the encroaching dementia. “I am becoming a vegetable,” she wrote.

“Every day I lose bits of myself, and it’s obvious that I am heading towards the state that all dementia patients eventually get to: not knowing who I am and requiring full-time care.”

Bennett wanted to face death as she faced the challenges of her life: with intellectual curiosity, courage and grace.

She did not want to be a “carcass,” physically alive but “with no one inside.”

So she decided to end her life before her mind was totally gone.

“She wouldn’t let me help her, and I didn’t wish to,” said Jonathan. “I don’t know where she got the Nembutal or the instructions; she didn’t tell me.”

Nor did she let him help her drag the mattress outside, although that final effort was physically difficult for her.

One thing her husband does know for sure: “She was absolutely not frightened. Not even slightly. She was as calm and peaceful as you could imagine.”

After she passed away, Jonathan let go of her hand and called his wife’s doctor, who came and confirmed death and notified the RCMP.

An RCMP officer interviewed Jonathan and together they waited for the coroner.

“The policeman asked me what happened and I told him. He was very good. Efficient and civilized and good,” said Jonathan.

The officer’s respectful treatment was a small comfort. He and his wife knew that if anyone assisted her, they would be breaking the law.

“Gillian and I both disliked and disapproved of the laws making it impossible to help a loved one with something as important as death.”

His brilliant, beautiful wife — who once had a thriving clinical psychotherapy practice — had made the choice she felt was morally and ethically correct.

Dementia had crept in bit by bit.

Lately, Bennett became increasingly forgetful, hyperfocused on certain things, obsessing non-stop about others.

“She was failing more quickly in the last six months,” said her daughter Sara, “and she knew it.”

During lucid moments in the last two years, Bennett wrote about her decision. Vegetating for years in a hospital — in diapers, incompetent, a financial and physical burden — was a prospect she perceived as “ludicrous and wasteful.”

“Her position wasn’t just that she didn’t want to be a burden to others,” said Jonathan. “She was also considering the kind of life she would have. It would have been hard on the rest of us and not good enough for her.”

Her final gift to her children Sara, 56, and Guy, 55, was to call them home for a last weekend together on Bowen.

For the last few months, Guy said, his mother’s condition was declining. “She was in and out. She was very aware of the window closing.”

So when she called them to say that Monday would be the last day, the children were shocked but not surprised.

“The last weekend with her was surreal. It was just so painful. Really, really difficult,” said Guy.

But it was also extraordinary. Their mother had caught a “last wind,” Guy said. Her wit and humour were sharper than ever. She was on her game.

During a night in the house that seemed like any other night, Bennett got into a dispute with her husband about the themes of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. She argued vehemently that the play had to do with the mixing of blood, inbreeding, genes. Her husband argued that the play was all about class.

Jonathan didn’t hold back, telling his wife she was wrong and pulling examples from the text to support his argument in a last battle of two formidable intellects.

“He was very clearly right,” said Guy, “but my mother came up to me in the kitchen and said, ‘Your father appears to have a point.’” She glanced in her husband’s direction and added in a sly aside, “But we won’t tell him that.”

Bennett had private moments with each of her children, taking Guy on a vigorous hike to the top of a high hill where they could take in the view. The next day she went for a walk alone with his sister.

“The last thing she said to me, I was crying, she held my hand and said, ‘The only thing you need to do is just keep being you.’”

In spite of going public with her choice, Sara describes her mother as very private. Funny. Smart. Irreverent.

For Sara, her mother is gone too soon. She believes that had there been legal, humane medical options, her mother might still be alive.

“If someone could have helped her, she wouldn’t have had to die yesterday. She could have waited. If the law was different so that she could have had help, she would not have had to choose to end her life as soon as she did. That is the hardest thing.”

Sara struggles to hold back her tears. “Even though my mom died painlessly in exactly the way she chose, at the time she chose, knowing that she left the legacy she chose, it’s still unbelievably painful.”

Bennett, a mother of two, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of two, wanted to be remembered for who she was, said Jonathan: “Lively and full of life and ideas and encouragement. An opener of doors.”

The final door she wanted to open for others, as she carefully closed her own, was simply, said Sara, “A conversation. About this.”