4 challenges I faced after my husband’s assisted death

Personal Stories | September 20, 2019 | Sylvia Henshaw

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A photo of Douglas and Sylvia

In September 2016, Nova Scotia’s Douglas Henshaw became one of the first people to receive a medically assisted death in Canada. His wife, Sylvia — a Dying With Dignity Canada volunteer and member of our First Person Witness Council — reflects on four lessons she’s learned in the past three years.

On Tuesday, September 6, 2016, Douglas, my husband of 40 years, received a medically assisted death. For me, it was the beginning of a new life, one totally opposite to that which I had lived for the previous 10 years when I was his caregiver.

A photo of Douglas with a big smile

Sylvia’s husband, Doug, in 2015.

Here are four of the challenges I faced:

1. Time is long

Something I had never imagined was that I would have more time than things to do. Yes, in the early days there was a swirl of activity — preparing for the funeral, making legal and financial arrangements, and responding to visitors and phone calls. Following that time, I kept busy rearranging and cleaning my apartment, and then rearranging again. There were so many choices available.

There were days when I finished my daily routine, including a walk, before 10 a.m. Looking after myself obviously wasn’t going to be a full-time job. Learning to do things just for me proved difficult. Through trial and error, I found what brought me peace, and even joy. For me, that was going to yoga classes and the gym, and reconnecting with friends. I still need some time in which to do nothing, but I no longer relive the past. Now, I look forward to each day and the joy and challenges it may bring.

2. Life is not the same

After Doug’s death, I thought I would return to the habits and activities we had shared in better times. But I was not comfortable being far from home, or going to events as a single person. My parameters had changed. I was no longer one half of Doug and Sylvia, no longer a wife, no longer a caregiver. I felt as though I was stepping back into a world that was only somewhat familiar, that I had missed much of what had taken place in those 10 years I spent as his caregiver.

Doug was ill when we moved into our apartment, and as his health declined quickly, there were very few happy memories, or feelings of joy in my home. To combat this, one year after his death I adopted two kittens, Robbie and Anais. They keep me active and involved, and ensure that at least once a day, I laugh out loud.

A collage of Sylvia's tabby cats

3. Insecurity and guilt may creep in

When Doug died, I told very few people, outside the family, that he had an assisted death. It was the early days of medical assistance in dying (MAID). I wanted to discuss, in person, his choice and his death with all five of our children, three of whom were living abroad. Following his funeral, I was prepared to talk about MAID, but no one asked me!

Six months later, I was asked by the Nova Scotia chapter of Dying With Dignity Canada to do a television interview. Although all the responses were positive, I was waiting for the accusations. I was uncomfortable in public, until I eventually realized that most people were actually in favour of this end-of-life option. Several friends asked me for information and for help when they reached the end of their lives.

But every time I heard “assisted suicide” or “I don’t know if I could do what you did to your husband,” I would cringe. Now, I use it as an opportunity to explain how MAID works. I talk about how difficult it can be to get approval. I point out that Doug chose MAID. All I did was support him. I couldn’t request it for him, nor could I stop him from choosing MAID. I decided that if I am guilty of supporting the wishes of my dying husband, so be it. I can live with that.

4. I have credibility

The final lesson I learned is that I am recognized for my experience with MAID, which is a challenge and responsibility I don’t take lightly. I still live in the small town where I grew up, where Doug and I both spent our careers. By consenting to television interviews, and by writing our story for the Dying With Dignity Canada blog, I have developed credibility among those hoping to have MAID available to them.

Since Doug’s death, I have helped four friends access MAID. I provide information both from our experience and from the DWDC website. I answer their questions, and I listen as they weigh the pros and cons of their decisions. I do whatever they need me to do to relieve some of the overwhelming stress and anxiety of assessments and approval. It is an honour to be given the trust of my friends at one of the most vulnerable times of their lives.

During these past three years, with the support of family and friends, I have grown. I have learned to fill the time, adapt to the changes, and refuse to feel guilty about being a MAID supporter — and I’ve accepted that I have the ability to help others who are facing their own death. And I am still learning.

A portrait of Sylvia

Sylvia Henshaw is the Communications Officer for Dying With Dignity Canada’s First Person Witness Council (FPWC).

The FPWC consists of Canadians who have supported a loved one on a journey with assisted dying and want to speak out about their experiences. Members of the group will dispel myths and misconceptions about MAID, provide peer support to others who have had similar experiences, and work to break down the stigma that’s still sometimes associated with Canadians’ hard-won right to a peaceful death. 

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