Supporting a loved one through MAID
Personal Stories | July 16, 2021 | Gill McCulloch
We don’t choose to be born, but we should have the right to decide to die.
After supporting a beloved family member through the process of medical assistance in dying (MAID), I’m incredibly grateful to have this option in Canada. Accompanying my aunt on her end-of-life journey was a heartbreaking experience — and an honour. I hope my story will help if you ever go through this.
In December 2020, my aunt, Magriet, chose to end her life. She was in the final stages of leukemia and asked me, her only relative in Canada, to be with her when she died. With a heavy heart, I agreed to support her in whatever ways she needed. The weeks that followed were some of the most painful and memorable of my life.
Six years after doctors gave her six months to live, my aunt’s luck had finally run out. She’d been the poster child for a new drug called Vidaza. Beyond all expectations, she’d had five good years since her diagnosis. She’d made the most of every day trying to ignore the dark cloud of borrowed time hovering on the horizon.
When finally her body began to shut down, the decline was swift. Symptoms that had been manageable became increasingly unbearable. Magriet had always been a strong, independent person. A nurse for more than thirty years, she’d always been the one helping others — never the one needing help. She was fit, strong, capable and caring, but then the pain kicked in.
She gradually lost strength and energy and, with it, her independence. First, she gave up Pilates classes, then walking became too tiring, and she no longer felt safe driving. In the last few days, she moved only between the bed and sofa. The pain increased, and she started taking morphine.
“It’s time Gilly, I can’t do this anymore. I’ve had enough.”
Looking in from the outside
Life went on around her, with people making plans to do things in the future she’d never have, marking events on calendar pages she’d never turn. Near the end, my aunt said,
“I feel like I’m already on the outside looking in. I’m an observer rather than a participant — a useless burden, sitting on a couch someone else could use.”
She said it was like an out-of-body experience — as if she was watching herself sitting around, existing. Life seemed grey and pointless. When she said she was no use to anyone now, I tried to object, but she shook her head and stopped me.
“No — Gilly, this is how I feel.”
What is MAID?
Medical assistance in dying or MAID is a procedure where a doctor or other health care provider gives a person medications to intentionally and safely end their life. Its purpose is to stop the suffering of terminally ill and suffering adults.
Across the world, people struggle with conditions that result in disability and chronic pain. Many want the right to end their life painlessly and safely rather than being put through the torture of operations that only buy them a little more time.
Often, people are horrified by the idea of being kept alive by machines for long periods with drugs that barely take the edge off their discomfort. They don’t want their families to have to watch them die a slow, painful death.
Deciding on MAID
MAID isn’t a decision a person takes lightly. It took a year of counselling for my aunt to come around to the idea. She was fearful — of pain, losing control, and the mystery of death. What, if anything, would be waiting for her on the other side?
Some friends tried to reassure her with thoughts and visions of heaven and family preparing to greet her. Others said they believed there’d be nothing but blackness. When you die, that’s it, the end. She wrestled with all of these ideas.
My aunt had been considering MAID for months before telling me. She wanted to pick the right moment, not knowing how I’d react. She was relieved to know I supported her decision. Under similar circumstances, I would’ve made the same choice.
We were calm as we began to discuss everything, but then the tears came. Together we wept, taking turns to drag tissues from the box. The tears were of sadness at losing each other and relief she would no longer have to suffer.
Magriet had already completed the necessary MAID paperwork with her doctor. I reassured her I’d be with her every step of the way, and she was grateful. She planned a date for the following week, worrying whether the day and time would be convenient for us all — thoughtful until the end.
That night I dreamed I was sitting in my aunt’s living room looking at the moon and stars against the blackness. The moon was immense and powerful — beautiful in the night sky. I was vaguely aware of shadowy people moving around, muttering quietly in the background, but I paid no attention. All that mattered was the moon. The following day, I understood the moon was my aunt. From now until the end, my only job was to take care of her.
My aunt arranged for her MAID procedure to take place in the morning. She wanted to avoid suffering a whole day sick with nerves, wondering how everything would go. When I kissed her goodnight, she held my hand and told me she was completely ready to go and at peace with everything. I put a little bell by her bed, near her morphine tablets and slept on an airbed outside her room. She never rang the bell.
Magriet’s last day started with a beautiful sunrise. From her bed, she could see a glimpse of the gorgeous morning sky. I videoed the entire panorama from one edge of the mountain to the other and brought the sunrise inside for her to enjoy. We drank tea quietly, and she said she was at peace and ready for what was to come. She was sad about leaving us, though, and about how we’d feel when she was gone. Our family and friends around the world kept vigil on this day — connected in our sadness.
Sunshine and the glow of tealight candles bathed my aunt’s bedroom in a warm light. Soft music and the gentle fragrance of beautiful flowers — white and yellow roses, pink lilies and a single Marguerite daisy — her favourite, created a peaceful atmosphere. Tears accompanied many of her favourite songs. Hallelujah, You’ll Never Walk Alone, The Wind Beneath My Wings, Amazing Grace and The Sound of Silence. Along her window ledge were pictures of family, friends and her dogs. She could see all of this from her bedside with a view of her mountain beyond.
The little suitcase
While we sat together and reminisced, there were silent tears, shared memories and even a few chuckles. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, my husband and I were the only family members present. However, two of her closest friends were also at her side.
I told them the story of when my uncle, Magriet’s younger brother, at four years old, decided to leave home and have an adventure. He walked by himself to the station with a tiny suitcase. One of his father’s co-workers noticed him on the train and brought him home safely.
When his mother opened the case, she found he’d packed only two items — an apple and a single roller skate. My aunt’s eyes were closed, and she was smiling listening to this story. She said,
“Gilly, I’m ready to go, but I think I forgot to pack my little suitcase.”
Before the doctor arrived, we each had a moment to say goodbye. I told my beautiful aunt how I loved her and would miss her. I thanked her for being a wonderful friend and role model, and a treasure to our family. She’d conducted her life with such grace and dignity, always so kind and generous to all.
I mentioned family members and friends gathered in spirit around the world thinking of her. She smiled through tears and said she could feel their love. I said it was the greatest honour of my life to represent our family and care for her in this last week of her life. I’d been able to help her through many vulnerable moments, and it was a humbling and life-changing experience.
The doctor and her assisting nurse arrived with containers full of syringes and medications. They were kind and professional and appeared to be in no rush. The doctor wafted in with a bright, breezy manner which seemed strange at first, but it lightened the sombre mood and we were grateful. She said Magriet was one of her favourite patients, and her eyes were bright with tears.
We exchanged our final words, and I held my aunt’s hand while the doctor injected the necessary medicines. First, she gave a sedative, then drugs to induce coma and finally medication to stop the breathing and heart. The doctor placed her stethoscope on my aunt’s chest and made a note in her book. It was at 10:57 a.m.
As she quietly left our world, Magriet’s favourite song, “You Raise Me Up,” started playing on her iPad. Nobody planned this — somehow, the song found its way to be with us in this profoundly moving moment.
“When I am down and, oh my soul, so weary
When troubles come and my heart burdened be
Then, I am still and wait here in the silence
Until You come and sit awhile with me.
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas
I am strong when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be” — Josh Groban
The young nurse opened the window wider to let my aunt’s spirit free and retreated to the bathroom to wipe her streaming mascara.
In the quiet moments that followed, a beautiful woodpecker came to the window, followed by several hummingbirds. The garden was suddenly alive with activity — birds flying around and squirrels in the trees and running on the lawn. And then, after a few minutes, all was still and quiet.
In my dream that night, I walked into the living room to find a small, beautiful deer sleeping peacefully in Magriet’s armchair with the morning sunshine warm on its soft fur. I found this dream comforting and felt my aunt was in a better place.
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” – Mitch Albom
My aunt was an exceptional role model in my life. She cared for me as a baby and later held my babies in her arms. When we first moved to Canada, she provided a safe landing space for my husband and me to start our new life. The three of us became close friends.
To our children, we held her up as the gold standard of behaviour and good manners. She was a beloved member of our family and a blessing to all who knew her. Though she’s no longer with us, her wise words and unconditional love remain.
Along with the pain of loss, there’s relief. I’m grateful my aunt was able to end her life on her terms and avoid the terrible suffering she would have otherwise endured. Everyone should have the right to decide when and how to die and be free to leave a life that has become unbearable, especially when there’s no hope of recovery.
I live in Canada and am fortunate to have the choice of MAID. For many others around the world, this is not yet an option.
I wonder — would you choose MAID?