A heart breaking story

August 28th, 2014 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

A New Zealand great-grandmother suffering from dementia took her own life with her husband at her side just hours after publishing a moving letter explaining her decision.

Christchurch-born Gillian Bennett, 85, died near her home in Canada on August 18. Her husband Jonathan held her hand during her final moments, around midday.

Yesterday he spoke to the Herald about his wife of 60 years’ decision to end her life, why he supported her and why he wants people to read her four-page letter.

Some extracts from the letter:

I will take my life today around noon. It is time. Dementia is taking its toll and I have nearly lost myself. I have nearly lost me. Jonathan, the straightest and brightest of men, will be at my side as a loving witness.

There comes a time, in the progress of dementia, when one is no longer competent to guide one’s own affairs. I want out before the day when I can no longer assess my situation, or take action to bring my life to an end.

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. I know as I write these words that within six months or nine months or twelve months, I, Gillian, will no longer be here.

I have had a husband beyond compare, and children and grandchildren who have outstripped me in most meaningful ways. Since I was seven I have had wonderful friends, whom I did and still do adore.

Today, now, I go cheerfully and so thankfully into that good night. Jonathan, the courageous, the faithful, the true and the gentle, surrounds me with company. I need no more.

It is almost noon.

You can only feel for families that have to struggle with these decisions.

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41 Responses to “A heart breaking story”

  1. Nukuleka (347 comments) says:

    It would be extremely saddening if other folk who felt that they were beginning to lose their memories and fearing that they would be a burden on their families, friends and the state were to be influenced by this woman’s actions. We decry copycat suicides among the young and should beware a similar trend occurring by publicising situations such as this.

    A sad event and letter indeed, but there are disturbing implications in publicising it in the media. One can’t help but wonder why the family has decided to do this.

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  2. Kimbo (1,082 comments) says:

    A remarkably competent and clear expression…especially for someone with dementia.

    Just saying…

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  3. Andrei (2,668 comments) says:

    Everybody dies Mr Farrar – it is the human condition

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  4. Alan Wilkinson (1,890 comments) says:

    @kimbo, she is looking forward 6-12 months.

    @nukuleka, what is wrong with wanting to be remembered as a loving sentient human rather than as a vegetable?

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  5. thor42 (971 comments) says:

    It sounds like she was a wonderful woman.
    Those of her age are truly the greatest generation, having gone through the Depression and WWII.

    The world will be infinitely the poorer when the last of that generation have passed away.

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  6. Huevon (223 comments) says:

    Still don’t see how you jump from this tragedy to state-sanctioned killing by doctors in hospitals….

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  7. Judith (8,534 comments) says:

    Her full letter can be found here.
    It’s very thought provoking.

    http://www.deadatnoon.com/index.html

    There is the argument that Nukuleka has alluded to, that if we accept euthanasia for the elderly, how long will it be before the elderly are forced to take such a decision, simply because they feel they are being a ‘burden’ to others?

    It is a slippery slope argument – because then how long would it be before the mother of a disabled child decides that child is a burden, or the wife whose husband has been crippled, encourages him to believe he would be better off dead, so she can move on?

    To me the most relevant part of her letter was Dementia is taking its toll and I have nearly lost myself. I have nearly lost me

    For a vital intelligent person, the future loss of the ‘self’ would be incredibly difficult – if not impossible to cope with. For that reason I can understand and agree with this courageous woman’s decision. But to simply feel the need to die, because you fear being a nuisance sets a very strong precedence regarding the value of life.

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  8. UrbanNeocolonialist (310 comments) says:

    Well done Gillian. Few have such strength.

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  9. Don the Kiwi (1,794 comments) says:

    “You can only feel for families that have to struggle with these decisions.”

    I have been dealing with people with dementia for about five years now, in rest homes.
    In my experience, the majority of families give wonderful support to their elderly ones; some families don’t give a stuff, and are eagerly awaiting the demise of their loved one to gain financially from the death.

    And very sadly, there are some people who don’t give a stuff. I deal with a couple of elderly ladies who have family living in the vicinity, and get visitted by them only two or three times a year – YES – a YEAR. That is disgusting.

    All these elderly people a very happy most of the time and are very well looked after and cared for. They all have their moments, and occasionally some will have their lucid moments, and other times are just blank or mildly distressed, but I cannot say I have seen any of them wishing to die by their own hand. Sure, some say they wish it would end when they may have a time of depression, but they come out of it and are happy again.

    I would see no justification for any of them having their life terminated – they have dignity and are happy.

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  10. dime (10,125 comments) says:

    brutal. i would also take myself out. hard getting the timing right. but dam, ya wouldnt want to leave it too long.

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  11. RRM (10,026 comments) says:

    It can’t be pleasant seeing dementia coming to get you. Actually doing what she did shows guts though.

    I notice that people in her position, or with serious health problems or other REAL trouble in their life, just do it, and don’t care what the state or people on political blogs might think.

    Nukuleka – define “copycat suicides” please.

    We all die.

    Most of us die after growing old.

    Plenty of us might independently arrive at the same place she was in when she wrote her letter.

    Who is the almighty state to declare THOU SHALT NOT…?

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  12. David Garrett (7,557 comments) says:

    I don’t see great sadness in this…except perhaps that she was “only” 85 …I absolutely support anyone’s right to check out when they see fit – so long as they aren’t suffering from depression or another mental illness so their perception is warped…

    Kimbo: Dementia is like that in the early stages…they are called “lucid intervals” where one is painfully aware of how one is “losing it”, and then there are the periods where they are in fact “lost”…and those periods gradually – or if you are bloody unlucky, more quickly – become longer and longer, and closer and closer together. I have a friend aged 61 who is in this same phase now…for the moment, he is happy to continue to live…

    This vibrant lady obviously decided to do what she did while there were still enough lucid intervals for her to remain in control of her destiny, and not potentially have her husband become liable by assisting her….

    Huevon: Why should they be “state sanctioned killings by doctors”? This woman – and many like her – did it while SHE was still in control..

    RRM: Well said…

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  13. soundhill1 (271 comments) says:

    Maybe try to understand the stages of life.

    This film was studied by Erik Erikson who wrote of a number of stages of human development. The final one is the battle of coming to terms with the life lived. To continue to try to be in control of the situation may not allow the process to work so well.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFsU0QA7-M4 click on box for subtitles

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  14. Fletch (6,496 comments) says:

    Brendan Malone in his Leading Edge blog criticizes the Herald for glamourizing the suicide.

    I am truly astounded that a supposedly reputable media organisation would allow their column space to be given to a pro-suicide activist to use as a mouthpiece for a very dangerous ideology – one that is clearly dangerous enough to require a list of anti-suicide helplines to be promoted along with the story.

    Still unsure how irresponsible this really is?

    Just imagine if the tragic suicide of Robin Williams, approximately a fortnight ago, had been glamourised by the NZ Herald the way that suicide is glamourised in this story today.

    The NZ Herald don’t have any excuse for today’s actions either, because just eight days ago they published an article on the latest NZ suicide statistics which opened with the following sentence: “New Zealand’s youth suicide rate has dropped by a quarter – but suicides among the elderly are rising as old people are increasingly isolated from their families.“

    That’s right – just days after covering the growing and serious problem of suicide amongst the elderly in NZ, and acknowledging that isolation is contributing to these needless deaths, the NZ Herald runs an article promoting and glamourising suicide by an elderly person.

    What makes this situation even worse is the fact that it reeks of pro suicide-by-euthansia activism. The story has been given top billing, but it lacks proper journalistic balance and the suicide victim doesn’t even live in NZ and nor did she take her life here (she was a former NZ resident who lived in Canada, which is where the suicide took place.)

    http://theleadingedgeblog.com/why-is-the-nz-herald-promoting-and-glamourising-suicide/

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  15. seanmaitland (501 comments) says:

    @Alan Wilkinson – the only difference in the way she will be remembered is that her grandchildren and relatives will remember her as having committed suicide.

    If she didn’t take her life it wouldn’t change people’s memories of her.

    That is about the worst excuse I’ve ever heard for Euthanasia – so that people’s memories of you are better. Good grief.

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  16. Alan Wilkinson (1,890 comments) says:

    @Judith: “But to simply feel the need to die, because you fear being a nuisance sets a very strong precedence regarding the value of life.”

    That horse bolted long ago: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Oates

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  17. mandk (1,018 comments) says:

    @ Judith,
    we’re not actually talking about “euthanasia” in this particular case, but your general point about the danger of coercion is correct.

    I tend to talk about “euthanasia” using inverted commas, or give it an alternative name: geronticide.

    Voluntary “euthanasia” would very quickly become abused by the wicked or greedy (as Don the Kiwi points out above).

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  18. iMP (2,422 comments) says:

    With two parents suffering from alzheimers, one severely, I totally disagree with this mentality. It assumes people with dementia are invalid, not wanted, and dementia is something to be ignored. Life is not always about happy, healthy, smiling 20-somethings who are all good-looking and find life a continual string of entertainments; life often brings suffering, pain, disease, and injustice. The measure of our humanity is HOW we wrestle with these mysteries not eradicate them, as this woman has done.

    I do not judge her, but this thinking is toxic.

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  19. Judith (8,534 comments) says:

    mandk (874 comments) says:
    August 28th, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    I realise in this case it is not ‘euthanasia’ as defined by the three types we associate with the action. However, in my opinion it sits in an eery space – suicide does not seem to provide a full explanation for me.

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  20. Alan Wilkinson (1,890 comments) says:

    @seanmaitland, oh really? That just shows people’s values and judgements can differ greatly. Which is why the state should not intervene in those decisions other than to prevent the individual harming others.

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  21. Robo (25 comments) says:

    I agree these are intensely personal decisions, best left to the individual and their family. There is no “one size fits all” – except that we all have to face death one day. I really hate the idea of the state being involved, and I think it is extremely naive to think that state sanctioned euthanasia will be anything other than bureaucratic, undignified and uncaring. Since when did we trust the government, or government appointees, with this sort of stuff? Liverpool Care Pathway anyone?

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  22. lastmanstanding (1,303 comments) says:

    Alas I would suggest that some elder people are under pressure from their close family usually children to ‘end it all” usually for either financial reasons such as inheritance or so the younger can avoid the problem or caring for their parent.

    The generation preceding the baby boomers such as this woman will be much more likely to comply than the baby boomers will.

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  23. soundhill1 (271 comments) says:

    Some refs to my last post. Difficult subject, disagreements.
    http://currentnursing.com/nursing_theory/theory_of_psychosocial_development.html
    http://allnurses.com/nursing-student-assistance/can-you-help-644125.html

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  24. Judith (8,534 comments) says:

    “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. I know as I write these words that within six months or nine months or twelve months, I, Gillian, will no longer be here. What is to be done with my carcass? It will be physically alive but there will be no one inside.”

    Strong words. She has clearly given a lot of thought before making her decision.

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  25. muggins (3,811 comments) says:

    That lady has done exactly what I would do, providing I was capable of doing it when the time came. It’s her life and her choice.

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  26. Dexter (308 comments) says:

    “The measure of our humanity is HOW we wrestle with these mysteries not eradicate them, as this woman has done.”

    And one step inside a state supported dementia home would expose the current measure of our humanity to be sorely lacking. They are zombies, stripped of free will, forced to live in nappies and dying a prolonged death devoid of dignity. We afford animals the right to die a good death, why begrudge humans the same?

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  27. Kimbo (1,082 comments) says:

    @ Alan Wilkinson

    You are usually better when your citing sources. Oates sacrificed himself because he had utterly no hope of life beyond a few painful days. He also did so in the hope that his comrades would live, not simply because he was a nuisance.

    And who can predict the onset of the effects of dementia? It is not a condition I wish on anyone or their family, and I’m not even necessarily criticising her decision. Nonetheless, if this letter accurately reflects Gillian Bennett’s (occasional) mental faculties, she seemed to have significant lucidity in the short term at any rate (as David Garrett explains).

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  28. thor42 (971 comments) says:

    @iMP – “life often brings suffering, pain, disease, and injustice. The measure of our humanity is HOW we wrestle with these mysteries not eradicate them, as this woman has done.”

    That is your view and that’s fair enough.
    Others (myself and that woman included) may disagree.
    For what it’s worth, I believe that someone suffering as this woman was should have the right to end their suffering. Like very many others, I find it odd that society seems to condemn the ending of people’s suffering yet it readily accepts doing this for animals.

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  29. edhunter (552 comments) says:

    Terry Pratchett’s documentary “Choosing to Die” is a must watch.

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  30. David in Chch (523 comments) says:

    My mother suffers from Alzheimer’s. My Dad died last year, in part due to the stress of watching her “die a little bit each day”, as he put it to me once. He was not allowed to grieve the love of his life, his wife of more than 60 years, because her shell was still alive. She still knew him, but little by little he could see her disappearing. My sister visits her every couple of days. My mother no longer remembers that I exist, or that she has grandchildren. She remembers my father, now and then, and knows my sister most of the time. She is well cared for, and we would not choose euthanasia for her, because she would not have chosen it for herself. But my Dad would have, and if I ever start down that track, then I might choose it for myself, after talking with my family about it. It is a deeply personal decision, and the state should, bluntly, have no part in it. I admire this woman’s decision, and I admire her family for making it public.

    Oh, and Dexter, my mother and all the others like here in the nursing home there in Canada are well cared for, gently and with concern for the individuals.

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  31. nasska (11,813 comments) says:

    The real pity is that this woman was forced by law to take her own life when she did.

    If we could get the state & the churches out of the equation then we could direct in advance that once we were totally gaga then we should be euthanised. If a person is sufficiently able to make a will then they are sufficiently sane to dictate the terms of their own death. Were this option available the poor woman may have had another few months of life.

    Fat hope with the current thicket of hand wringing busy bodies & know alls.

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  32. Redbaiter (9,632 comments) says:

    “Fat hope with the current thicket of hand wringing busy bodies & know alls.”

    Like you.

    Using big govt to impose an extremely unpopular redefinition of traditional marriage upon the citizenry because you thought it was a good idea.

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  33. Souvlaki (45 comments) says:

    It is such a well structured letter, it makes me dubious as to either :the diagnosis itself OR that the sufferer of the dementia actually penned it.

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  34. nasska (11,813 comments) says:

    How’s your forced gay marriage going Baity or did you read the small print which stated that it wasn’t mandatory?

    Just like assisted suicide & euthanasia.

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  35. Redbaiter (9,632 comments) says:

    Face it narsekissa, you’re the damn busybody who thinks he knows best.

    All you progs are the same.

    Smug hypocrite.

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  36. eszett (2,431 comments) says:

    life often brings suffering, pain, disease, and injustice. The measure of our humanity is HOW we wrestle with these mysteries not eradicate them, as this woman has done.

    Oh dear, I really have to laugh at this one. How can someone write such nonsense or even believe in it.

    Our Humanity is precisely about eradicating and minimising suffering, pain, disease, and injustice.

    It is only a few catholics and other few religiously inspired who wallow and thrive on pain and suffering. Be my guest if that is what rocks your boat, but stop forcing this on everybody else.

    Time to ditch such idiocy and inhumanity.

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  37. Alan Wilkinson (1,890 comments) says:

    @Kimbo, I am always better! Oates set the bar. So did Socrates in a different way. I like being a nuisance but when it is no longer fun I reserve the right always to make my own decisions.

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  38. RRM (10,026 comments) says:

    Baiter: should it be legal? Or banned?

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  39. Kimbo (1,082 comments) says:

    @ Alan Wilkinson

    Fair enough. Although if you excuse yourself from blogland with the words, “I am just going outside and may be some time”, I’m sending out a search party!

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  40. goldnkiwi (1,545 comments) says:

    As to the question of why the letter was publicised, I can think off hand of two explanations, one being that they belonged to a group and this leads to a wider debate and the other is so that the husband would not be charged, is there not a moral obligation (generally speaking) to stop someone killing themselves if there is the opportunity? If that is the case and you do not intervene is there not a possible charge of assisting suicide or in fact a charge of murder? Manslaughter would not be a likely charge as death was the intent.

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  41. ChardonnayGuy (1,216 comments) says:

    My parents tried to cope on their own when my paternal grandmother developed Alzheimers during the eighties. She became increasingly disruptive and her condition led her to become an insomniac. My mother developed high blood pressure and it may have been the stress of helping to care for my grandmother that tipped her over the edge to Type 2 diabetes. Ultimately, after my grandmother threatened to kill my mother, she was placed in a nursing home and spent the next decade or so in a context of highly skilled professional caregiving. Elderly people in this situation are not a burden, far from it. However, they do deserve high quality professional care and palliative medication in their twilight years.

    However, could I ask an obvious question from the above observation: What about the caregivers? What about endangerment of their lives and health by ailing relatives, either intentionally (albeit due to failing cognitive processes) or through accidental mishap? John/iMp, I hope that you’re getting support at such a difficult time. My heart goes out to you and I wish you well.

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