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My mother-in-law suffered from multiple myeloma, a very painful bone cancer. For the last three years of her life she was in constant physical pain. She was unable to walk, or do any of the tasks she had fulfilled all her life. Even receiving visitors had become a burden to her, she couldn’t offer them tea or a slice of the cakes she was renowned for, but now could no longer make.
She spent her days on the couch. Every night, my father-in-law would assist her to go to bed. She performed a series of delaying tactics because she dreaded the pain of being moved from the couch to her bed. It could take two hours for the process to be completed. For the same reason, my mother-in-law severely limited the amount of food and drink she would take so that she wouldn’t have to move for toileting.
The bed-delaying tactics meant that my father-in-law was lacking sleep on top of the necessity to work to pay for the bills which were piling up. Around this time he was apparently sent a letter from their health insurer to say that there were changes in policy and he needed to update payments. He did not remember receiving such a letter and as a result his policy went from top cover to lowest, meaning that after paying for top cover for about thirty years, now, when it was needed, they no longer had it. They did eventually come to some arrangement, but it all added to the distress.
The family set up a roster system so that there would always be someone at home with my mother-in-law. One day when I was with her, she asked me to help her end her life because she didn’t want to live any more. She was of very sound mind but physically was unable to take her own life.
Very selfishly, I refused. I say selfishly because breaking the law in this case would not have worried me, but I was afraid of damaging my relationship with my father-in-law, sisters-in-law and above all, my husband and children. I knew that they all believed in voluntary euthanasia philosophically, but thought that if I had performed this act, their view of me would change. Firstly, there would be the knowledge that I had killed their mother and then the wonder (if she had not asked them) of whether she had wanted this end or whether I had taken it upon myself to make such a decision. And although breaking the law would have been acceptable to me, a court case and possibly imprisonment was out of the question as I had three young children at the time and their welfare was foremost.
My mother-in-law was a devout Christian. Though not a Catholic, she spent the last six months of her life in a Catholic nursing home, where she received excellent care and was admired by all the staff. One nun who was in charge told my father-in-law that because of my mother-in-law and her suffering, a number of the nuns were re-examining their beliefs and attitudes, but towards what was not stipulated.
I have only one reservation about voluntary euthanasia. It requires a doctor or nurse to actively assist in a death and I wonder if we are asking too much of them, if after some time they will feel guilt, or feel that others will see them as life-takers rather than suffering alleviators. To all those who work in palliative care and caring nursing homes, a deep thank you.