Fifty people have called me in the last three years to say, “I’m thinking about dying.”
They’re usually embarrassed, because their friends and family don’t want to discuss it, but that’s why they call me — they know I’ll understand. I’m in my mid-70s and was a nurse for 20 years, so I’ve dealt with a lot of people who’ve been in difficult, uncomfortable and often really painful positions.
Four years ago, a friend of mine at the Unitarian Church told me about the Dying With Dignity Network, which was training volunteers to speak with people looking for more information about medically-assisted death. Hearing fellow volunteers share why they were interested in Dying with Dignity, which included lots of stories of their own family members and friends suffering painful deaths, is what convinced me to sign up as a volunteer.
While my job is to provide information about the various options people have when considering death, most who call are just relieved they can find someone to talk to about dying, someone who will just listen.
I was quite nervous when I took my first phone call in 2013, with a middle-aged man who had ALS. He feared suffocating to death, a possibility with his condition as those who have ALS experience muscle failure, which causes difficulty breathing and swallowing. While he and his wife were relieved to talk about it, they wanted to know if there was a way for him to die easily, given that at the time, there was no legal options in Canada.
We talked about how they could also go to Switzerland, but that was a very expensive proposal. We discussed refusing medical treatment as an option, but unless you’re very frail and at the end of life, it can be very long process where there’s a risk of ending up in a coma or a worse state than they were before. It’s not a comfortable way to go.
There was just no easy solution for him. I gave his wife the opportunity to phone me again if she wanted to talk, (he was having difficulty talking at that point) but I never heard back. I don’t know what happened to him.
Since then, a legal option for medically-assisted death in Canada was introduced in 2016, which allows doctors to help someone die if they have a terminal diagnosis that causes enduring and intolerable suffering. Despite this progress, it’s still incredibly frustrating for me to realize so many people I speak with aren’t covered by the legislation — those suffering from dementia, or those who aren’t terminally ill, but have chronic and debilitating suffering.
I have to accept that for some people there’s nothing that can be done. But these people need someone to talk to. Even if I can’t solve their difficulties, I can listen, rather than dismissively saying something like, “If you’re in that much pain, take more pain medication.”
When I came back from holidays this July, I had missed a call from a woman I’d spoken to in May. She was in her 90s, and she had pulmonary fibrosis so she had great difficulty breathing. She was on continuous oxygen and bedridden, unable to take the few steps to the bathroom because she’d get so out of breath. When I called her back she told me she had an appointment to die at 7 p.m. next day.
“Can I say that’s wonderful?” I asked her.
“Yes, it is wonderful,” she replied. She was tired. And ready. That’s what made it happy news.
All these stories stay with me. Death is something people feel uncomfortable about. But I’ve learned to be more open with the conversation. I’ve learned a lot about people’s suffering, and how to be more open-hearted and compassionate. In the end, it’s made me more comfortable with my own mortality.