Putting a human face on the issue of assisted dying

19-keith-nethery-columnby Keith Nethery

Much discussion has taken place since the Supreme Court of Canada struck down legislation that prevented medical assistance in dying.

The Court gave the government a year to put new legislation in place, which occurred in 2016. Various levels of government are still working on their rules around this touchy subject.

The Anglican Church of Canada has declined to take a position either for or against, but rather our Primate, Fred Hiltz, suggested that Anglicans were not of one mind on this subject. Study materials have been produced and reproduced with a request that we become better informed.

In the interest of fostering such discussion, I have permission to share with you the story of Carolyn and Dave. I was involved in pastoral care for much of this journey.

On May 10, 2013 Carolyn received a diagnosis no one wants to hear. She had ALS. It was just nine days before the birth of her first grandchild, a bond that would keep some of the darkness of ALS at bay over the next three years. Carolyn fought hard and continued to do much, including a family cruise, as the disease began to take its toll.

Grandson Parker was truly a gift from God and was the light that kept life in Carolyn’s heart through the most difficult days of her illness. Facebook was home to literally dozens, if not hundreds, of photos of Carolyn and Parker hanging out and sharing life.

Over time Dave and Carolyn talked openly with each other about what was ahead and at times that conversation touched on the subject of assisted dying. Daughter Sarah joined the conversation and as court decisions and government debate became more prominent, so too did the idea that assisted dying might be part of Carolyn’s future.

On June 7th, Carolyn and Dave were at a doctor’s appointment, when the subject was raised and the process was set in motion. On the evening of July 4th, Dave and Sarah took Carolyn to hospital and spent the night telling stories and saying goodbye. In the morning, extended family on both sides arrived at the hospital.

I was honoured to have been asked by the family to journey with them through this difficult time, and July 5th would be no different. I prayed for Carolyn and stood with family as doctors, nurses and hospital staff went over and over and then double and triple checked the process and procedures. They again confirmed with Carolyn this was indeed her choice. I gave Carolyn, Dave, Sarah and members of their family Communion and shared the Prayers of Ministry at the Time of Death from the BAS.

Shortly after, two doctors entered the room and once again the process and procedure was explained. When the moment came, doctors, nurses, family and friends had tears in their eyes as in a peaceful moment Carolyn left this life and was returned to the God who created her and has loved and will love her forever.

There was one word that was repeated over and over by all who had witnessed Carolyn’s medically assisted death and that word was “peace.”

As this was among the first assisted deaths in Ontario, Dave was required to have an extended conversation with the Chief Coroner of Ontario. All was documented and reviewed with precision.

A few days later, we gathered to celebrate Carolyn’s life in a moving service with equal parts spirituality, family, tears, laughter and an interesting conversation about Mustang convertibles!

When we met a while later I asked both Dave and Sarah if there were ever second thoughts or doubts. They said clearly it was the right thing for Carolyn and they are comfortable with the decisions that were made. Dave shared that through the entire process, no one on either side of their family expressed anything but unconditional support for the process that was selected.

Early on I told you of the miracle of Parker who arrived to give Carolyn’s life so much more meaning and peace. The story ends with the arrival on November 22nd of Madyson, a second grandchild for Dave and Carolyn. One expects she will follow her big brother in bringing joy and peace to Carolyn’s family as they treasure forever her life and legacy.

I pray that by putting a human face on this discussion, we might all find ways to deepen our conversations. I am in awe of the love, strength and courage of Carolyn, Dave and their entire family.

The Reverend Canon Keith Nethery is Rector at Holy Trinity St. Stephen’s Memorial London, Ontario. His article which first appeared in the January 2017 Huron Church News, the diocesan newspaper of Huron Diocese, is reprinted here with permission and gratitude. The Niagara Anglican has featured several articles about assisted dying in Canada. Keith’s story illustrates the pastoral care and support ministers can provide to people in this and other life situations.