Barbara’s story: Our love-filled farewell

How do you say goodbye to your partner of 66 years? Barbara of Victoria, B.C. struggled to imagine life without her husband, Joe. However, after his cancer diagnosis, Joe chose to access medical assistance in dying (MAID) to end his pain, and to ensure he maintained the quality of life he wanted for himself and for those he cared about. Ultimately, Joe’s choice to access MAID brought peace to the whole family. Now, Barbara is sharing their story with the hope of informing and empowering others.

My husband Joe and I had talked about the way we would like to die for a long time. We had seen many relatives and friends, particularly those fighting cancer, struggle through the dreadful side effects of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. They only passed “naturally” after a long and painful period where many felt they had lost their dignity. Joe and I said we didn't think this was right — we don't let animals suffer like this, so we shouldn’t force people to linger in this state.

Though we remember Sue Rodriguez’s court case in 1993, we were totally unaware of medical assistance in dying (MAID) as an option. A neighbour mentioned that a friend had decided to invoke her right to access MAID, and I immediately went to the computer and looked it up. Joe and I discussed it and agreed, "When the time comes, if we are eligible, this is for us.” We both knew one another's wishes and hoped that nothing drastic would happen. This was before Joe had been diagnosed with cancer.

From telling our story, I would like more people to know about MAID, and to put the word out there about the steps involved. This procedure is available to many that qualify now, though I believe there is still a way to go to make sure there is equal access for all those that are suffering.

Barbara and Joe together in November 2017.

My husband Joe and I were together for 66 years and were married for 60. We had our ups and downs and were two different people, but to me that was always a good thing in a relationship. We loved to travel as much as we could; it wasn't often, and we couldn't always afford it, but now I'm so grateful that we did. A trip that stands out would be traveling to Tuscany. We just loved it. It's beautiful and so relaxing. We decided it's the lighting – it’s always diffused, because the sky is never really clear.

In day-to-day life, Joe was always there to discuss things, and he was a great support for me through various surgeries, including open-heart surgery, and through my struggles with arthritis, which included total shoulder replacement. We always supported and loved one another, and Joe could always make me laugh. When I would wake up depressed after a poor night's sleep because of arthritis pain, he would make jokes to lighten my mood. That was Joe, and that's what I miss.

Some of Barbara and Joe’s most memorable moments together were during their travels to Tuscany. 

Joe was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer in January 2019. We immediately realized he was not going to live very long. We discussed the possibility of chemotherapy and possibly radiation, though these treatments would prolong his life only by maybe three or six months. He decided that, with all the probable side effects, this wasn't the right decision for him. That was when we decided to start the MAID process.

After he was assessed and approved by two medical providers, Joe planned the day of his death for me. He thought May was the best time for our children to travel to Victoria. However, in April, I could see his symptoms were progressing to a point where he would possibly have to be hospitalized. His jaundice was making his facial skin almost green. We sat down and we talked, and I said, "Joe, why May?" and he said, "Because that's what's easiest for the kids." He was always putting others before himself, even at the end of his life. However, because his symptoms were progressing very rapidly, we changed the date to April because of the fear of his condition deteriorating beyond the point where he could access MAID.

"With a smile on his face"

On his final day before the procedure, family gathered around to be with us. Joe decided he would like to go out for a slap-up meal on his last night and mentioned Beef Wellington, but he had become too weak and too ill to go out. Knowing he couldn't make it to a restaurant, my youngest son went out shopping, bought a filet of beef, and made a beautiful Beef Wellington for the first time in his life. We had a fabulous evening meal with family all around. We sipped a little scotch with Joe, though none of us really liked scotch besides him, but he wanted to share. Joe was happy when his family was around him, and that's what he got. The meal was absolutely amazing; I can't believe my son did such a good job!

Joe's final dinner was a Beef Wellington his son cooked for him.

The following day, the family returned and our sons made brunch. The day before, the topic of baseball caps came up, and Joe jokingly said he'd never wear one. However, someone brought a cap the day of his death and challenged him, so he put one on back to front and put on a sort of Monty Python act. There was lots of laughter, as you can imagine. My husband knew that his discomfort and suffering wasn't going to continue and he had his family close. He was laughing and playing jazz CDs — his favourite genre of music — and was so happy.

The only thing that surprised me about the process was how very quick and peaceful it was. I thought the whole dying process would take longer. When the doctor asked if Joe was ready, he said yes, and then he received the first injection to relax him. I was snuggled up next to him and our family was around him. He had closed his eyes and suddenly he opened them and said, "What're you lot still doing here?" and everybody laughed.  We continued to talk to Joe, telling him how much we loved him and reminiscing about old times. The doctor did explain the process to us several times beforehand, but he also spoke to the family throughout the procedure. He was very good and compassionate, as any doctor who administers the MAID process must be.

It broke my heart when, after the three injections, the doctor put the stethoscope on Joe's heart and said he was gone. But Joe died with me right beside him, family surrounding him, knowing who everyone was, and with a smile on his face.

Joe and his family sipped scotch together on the evening before his medically assisted death.

Capacity is of great concern in so many situations. I often think about those with degenerative conditions who cannot access their right to MAID because of the late-stage consent requirement. That would be a dreadful feeling, having made that decision and either moving forward too quickly to avoid losing the capacity to consent, or losing capacity and no longer being able to access MAID. If we had gone ahead with Joe’s original date in May, I think he would have lost capacity and MAID would have no longer been an option on the table. Thankfully, we changed the timeline because Joe recognized that his state of health was deteriorating rapidly and he was losing quality of life. Quality of life was always his bottom line. However, if someone has chosen and been approved for MAID, but loses capacity, I believe they should still have the option to access it.

My eldest son was initially unsure about MAID, but he said he would support his dad in his decision. Shortly before the procedure, he asked his dad if this is really what he wanted. Joe said to him, "I don’t want to die not recognizing you; I want to know you are you." After everything was over and my husband had passed, my son said, "This is the way everybody should go. We all got the opportunity to spend time with him and to say goodbye, and to tell him we loved him and to hug him.” I miss Joe terribly but knowing that he died in peace is the biggest comfort. I hope for that kind of peace for everyone.

Dying With Dignity Canada is immensely grateful to Barbara for sharing her beautiful and powerful story. We are thankful her beloved Joe was able to access his choice of an assisted death and that his final days were so filled with love.

Voice Your Choice ahead of the 2019 federal election: Use our resources and tools to let the people vying to represent you in Parliament know that they have a duty to protect your right to assisted dying


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