Bereavement Week Series: Lise’s story

Personal Stories | November 16, 2021 | Dying With Dignity Canada

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A photo of young Alain, and a photo of Alain later in life

November 16 is National Grief and Bereavement Day. In recognition of this important day we are sharing a series of stories submitted by DWDC supporters about their grief and bereavement experience and process. For some, writing down the memory of a loved one is part of their bereavement process, for others reading the stories is comforting. We hope you find solace in the stories shared in this series.

This is Lise’s story.

Content warning: This blog post includes mention of suicide.

My close friend, Alain de la Vigne, was 90 when he passed away. He came into my life as my next-door neighbour but over the past ten years we became like family. We saw each other almost every day – he told stories and sometimes we just sat on his balcony and watched planes go by. He was one of my favourite people.

Over the last several years of his life, Alain had increasing trouble managing his affairs – the iPad became hard to work for him and so did the phone. Whenever Alain went to hospital, which happened with increasing frequency over the last couple of years of his life, he would experience delirium. I would spend days in hospital with him, disoriented and afraid. He only felt safe when a friend was there. During one of those visits, he finally acknowledged that he should no longer be driving; he was almost deaf and easily distracted. This was a huge decision – it took away his independence and sense of freedom.

When COVID hit, I made the decision to not spend time together in person. I was terrified to infect him. Though some neighbours helped him quite a bit, Alain suffered from more loneliness, increasing deafness, and troubling auditory hallucinations. In the summer of 2020, he began fantasizing about medical assistance in dying (MAID). He was proud of his home and didn’t want to die in a facility. He did not feel he had anything left here to stick around for. I supported him in his decision.

On August 27th, Alain died. Although he had been to a physician the day before to begin the process of MAID, he decided to take his own life the next morning. His friend had left the apartment before he committed suicide; I arrived a few minutes late and found his body. I spent most of that day with his body until he was taken away that evening, reflecting on his life and trying to process what had happened.

I continue to miss Alain every day. He was a joy in my life and a hero to me. He shared countless incredible stories and pieces of wisdom I will always use in my own life. Alain had survived hardship – he was adopted, he’d lived in poverty and struggled to build his very successful career. He had come out as a gay man in Germany, just after World War II. What a terrifying and inspiring move. Alain lived all over the world and had more adventures than most people I’ll know. He was loved.

I still struggle with guilt about Alain’s death and how I could have been a better friend to him while he was alive. I also, more generally, lament the treatment of the elderly. Daily, I think about Alain’s isolation and loneliness – which I know is shared by many – and wonder if I made the right move staying distant from him due to COVID.

Grieving during COVID was difficult. I was, for the most part, away from family and friends. I live alone, still next door, and daily walk by the site of Alan’s death. In the early days I coped by writing his obituary and thinking about him a lot. Later, I used Survivor Support through the Toronto Distress Centre. That helped a lot.

I was grateful to anybody who could listen without judgment; particularly, those who could stomach the more visceral details of Alain’s suicide, which were ever present in my mind. I found it unhelpful to be around people who pressed too hard for information, those who speculated that his suicide was “wrong,” and anyone who suggested that he was in a better place now.

The truth is, Alain deserved a better death. He deserved medical assistance in dying. I am not angry about Alain’s decision to take his own life – I believe it was his final act of autonomy – but I wish he hadn’t had to do it.

Among other things, I wish I had better understood how MAID works and how I could support Alain through the process. I wish I had recognized that Alain’s suicidal thoughts were going to result in imminent action. But most of all, I wish Alain had quick access to what he needed. Once he made the decision that his life was over, there was a process of administration stretching out in front of him – and one he wasn’t sure how to navigate. I hope, for other people in Alain’s position, that it’s easy to get the needed information – even if they’re deaf or elderly – and I hope that information feels accessible enough to walk them through the steps needed to end their life humanely.

Alain’s gone, but I have great hope that the work done by Dying With Dignity Canada can allow someone like him to die without physical pain, surrounded by those who love and understand him.

Lise Hosein

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