Flat White

Lessons for life from dying

3 November 2017

12:09 PM

3 November 2017

12:09 PM

Henri Joyeux was a strong, interesting, and intelligent man. He endured a difficult childhood and went on to serve in the Belgian army. After escaping a concentration camp in the Congo, he met my grandma at a dance in Brussels, and the two moved to Australia where they were married in an immigration camp before settling in Melbourne suburbia. As a grandfather, he invested time to listen and talk to his grandchildren, to tell the worst jokes in the world, and even permitted a certain granddaughter to hack at his eyebrows when she decided hairdressing was her destiny.

Following his stroke in 2010, Grandpa battled physical pain and a loss of independence. The greatest of his suffering, however, was emotional – a sense of uselessness and frustration clawed at him. I remember the frequent breakdowns Grandma would have, of Mum’s eyes welling and her voice breaking once he had to be moved into a nursing home. I remember the small cans of Sprite he would sip, of the cross necklace which lay on his tired chest, the smell of his aftershave, and pictures of our family which lined his bedroom walls. I remember watching his vigour for life waste, so slowly.

One of the most compelling messages from euthanasia advocates is that physician-assisted suicide would provide the terminally ill dignity in their death. But as someone who has seen the ugliness of a slow demise, I reject the notion that dignity can be measured by the level of pain or the speed in which the individual dies. My Grandpa’s dignity was inherent in his worth as a human being – it wasn’t diminished by having others care for him and it wasn’t neutralised by him no longer contributing to his community in a manner some may have deemed productive. I have no doubt the intentions of many of the 47 Victorian politicians who voted for the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill were good, but if this bill should pass the upper house, good intentions will not mean much.

In Belgium – my Grandpa’s homeland – assisted suicide is now a cultural norm. Where once euthanasia was restricted to patients in a “medically futile condition,” the premise of legalising it in the first place (that the individual should have control of their own death and some suffering is great enough to warrant the termination of life) has now seen assisted suicide laws expand to include patients who are children and those with mental illness, chronic fatigue, depression, anorexia, autism, and visual/auditory impairments. Likewise, in the Netherlands, children and those suffering from mental illness can now access assisted suicide.

The bill reflects a great moral question: are we able to decide whether people would be better off dead? What, then, does it convey to those who feel useless, to those with no hope of recovery, to those who feel the trauma their suffering causes their loved ones? That their existence is not worth protecting?  We reject capital punishment on the basis that human life is sacred, and even one misjudgement – the cost of one innocent – is too great a risk. How then do we rationalise the risks associated with this proposed law? The government itself acknowledges illegal assisted suicides are performed despite legislation outlawing the practice, yet somehow the safeguards in this bill won’t be violated?

Putting aside the great potential for abuse, we are naive to believe a Voluntary Assisted Dying Act would not have far-reaching consequences. In a nation where the primary cause of death for those aged 15-44 is suicide, how does validating the notion that some lives are better off terminated help lower this statistic? I have family and friends who have considered and attempted suicide, and family members who are disabled. I think of the battles they fight to accept that they possess dignity and worthiness despite their condition, and struggle to reconcile these truths with the message our state government is sending.

As President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Michael Gannon cautioned:

Once you legislate this, you cross the Rubicon… the sick, the elderly, the disabled, the chronically ill and the dying must never be made to feel they are a burdenour position is we need to do better with end-of-life care and we say that doctors should have no role in intentionally ending a patient’s life.

Rather than proffering lethal poison as a solution to the darkness accompanying death, should not the first step be to address deficits in palliative care? The relevant body in Victoria made a submission regarding the proposed bill, and their warnings were concerning. It claims that at least one in four Victorians who die each year do not have access to appropriate palliative care. How is it reasonable to propose a lethal option to patients, when non-lethal interventions are, in many cases, not even available?

If there is one guarantee of our existence, it is death. Not all are blessed to pass quietly or painlessly, and in such cases, we should strive to do what we can to ease distress. But this bill does something more – it suggests certain lives are less worthy than others. It doesn’t seek to end the suffering, it seeks to end the sufferer.

I remember the Sunday morning in 2013 when Henri Joyeux finally passed away, holding hands with those who loved him. Most importantly, I remember a man who lived and died with dignity, a man who taught us more of love, compassion, and resilience in his illness than he could have in his health. Sa vie valait la peine de vivre.

Grace Middleton is a dental nurse, completing a postgraduate degree at Melbourne University.

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