I’ve sat at my father’s deathbed twice, almost three times. The first time was when Dad suffered a major stroke at 66. We weren’t sure he’d survive. He did, but was left paralysed on one side and with his personality very much changed.
A few years later, Dad was hospitalised with severe pneumonia. Medical staff advised Mum to bring the family together, saying Dad wouldn’t last the night. He did, and the next morning berated us for discussing plans for his funeral. ‘You wanted me gone!’ was his accusation. It wasn’t much of a defence to explain we were only acting on what we’d been told.
And then, last August―with Dad now in a nursing home―we were told he would die within a matter of days. Our family gathered at his bedside in Wellington. Mum, my sister from Christchurch, Dad’s sister from South Australia, my husband and our children. It took almost two weeks for Dad to die. We learnt dying people sometimes rally when loved ones gather. That was comforting to hear.
News that MP David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill had been drawn from the Ballot and will be debated by the New Zealand Parliament sent my thoughts back to Dad’s death. Seymour’s Bill is focused on ‘the very real anguish faced by people with terminal illness as they anticipate the prospect of intolerable suffering, and the indignity of the final few days and weeks of their lives’.
Every death is different and I can only speak to my own experience. But I would say much of Dad’s final years were an experience of ‘indignity’. ‘Anguish’ wasn’t a stranger either.
Our last couple of days with Dad were hard. His breathing was laboured―the ‘death rattle’ people speak of― his pallor grey, his body worn out. At this point I’m not sure how much Dad could hear, but there was still work to do. The work of letting go and saying goodbye.
Seymour says should his Bill become law, doctors would need to assist only around 130 people each year to die. But others argue, based on similar legislation in the Netherlands where reported euthanasia cases represent four per cent of Holland’s total deaths, it’s more likely to be closer to 1240.
Euthanasia and assisted suicide became law in the Netherlands in 2002. The number of such deaths there rose 10 per cent last year to 6091, a 317 per cent increase since 2006. From experiences in the Netherlands it’s clear such deaths are no longer offered only to terminal cases. There were 32 more cases of assisted suicide involving people with dementia in 2016 than the year before, most in their early stages. Sixty other cases involved people with psychiatric problems.
Our family didn’t have power over when Dad would draw his final breath. His doctor didn’t have us pressuring for a quicker end. And rest home staff provided excellent palliative care.
Dad lingered, but he was still present. And at the end he lingered because those who loved him were with him. I believe this was good for him and I know that, although difficult, it was good for us too.
Christina Tyson has been a Salvation Army officer (minister) for almost 30 years. For 16 years she was involved in Salvation Army communications, but now works to support local churches and recruit future leaders. Recently she also took on an additional role as The Salvation Army’s Response Officer for the New Zealand Royal Commission into Abuse in Care. Christina and her husband Keith live in Wellington, New Zealand, and have three adult children.