Death, dying and the pursuit of control

Victoria’s landmark Voluntary Assisted Dying laws are now in force and, for most Victorians, won’t mean a thing.

They will probably never use them or know anybody who does, for the eligibility criteria is so narrow.

But for the unlucky few who will eventually exercise their rights under these new laws, they mean an awful lot.

My sister Kate had almost everything: intelligence, humour, compassion, a thirst for adventure, a love of animals, art and music.

The one thing she didn’t have was time.

Cancer changed all that. Osteosarcoma, to be exact. The most common type of bone cancer.

Kate died a few years ago. She is my big sister, but at 36 I’m now older than she ever was.

Kate and her study notes for veterinary science exams at Melbourne University.

Kate was a science student and, later, a veterinary surgeon. Early on, one of her doctors offered her a choice: “Do you want us to treat you as a medical professional, or not?”

That is, did she want them to distill her diagnosis and treatment options into layman’s terms, or communicate absolutely everything: all the scientific detail and nerdy medical complexity?

She chose to know as much as possible. It allowed her to reclaim a small amount of power and control.

When you’re fighting for your life and, later, preparing for your death, you grasp at any power and control you can.

Years later, Kate’s family and friends raised funds to help with the cost of medical treatment and to send Kate and her husband on the “holiday of a lifetime”.

We asked for donations, held a big trivia night and auctioned off items donated by local businesses.

(She probably won’t remember, but Victorian Attorney-General Jill Hennessy—then an opposition MP and now one of the senior government ministers charged with overseeing these new reforms—kindly donated a voucher for High Tea at the Victorian Parliament.)

Thousands of dollars were raised, and we were so thankful for the immense generosity of those who contributed.

But I detail this at length mainly to reflect on the futility of it all.

We gave my sister distractions, adventures and comforts because that was all we could give her.

What she wanted originally, a healthy life, the cancer robbed from her.

And what she wanted at the very end, a good death, the state denied to her.

My sister knew the end was coming.

She made a kind of peace with it, as much as I suspect anybody truly can.

She managed to say goodbye to almost everybody she loved and this gives me great comfort.

But, when the time came, Kate’s death was lonely. It was even more tragic than it needed to be.

She exercised the only power and control she had left.

Nothing was going to make my sister well again. But I will forever wonder how much better her death would have been if her family and friends had been there to hold her hand.

If my sister was alive today she would be applauding these new laws and thanking those who have campaigned so tirelessly to see them realised.

There are legitimate debates to be had about safeguards and implementation. But for those who oppose Voluntary Assisted Dying outright I have only envy and pity.

I envy anybody who hasn’t had a loved one so sick that they longed for the simple salvation of death, only to be denied this basic dignity.

And I pity anybody who has endured this awful experience, but still wishes to deny people the right to die in a manner and at a time of their choosing.   ■

Thanks for reading to the end. I heartily recommend this beautiful piece Kate’s good friend Dougie McGuire wrote on ABC Open just months before her death.

“We argued about everything over long boozy dinners, politics particularly, Irish matters especially and raged about the big things that really don’t matter, safe that our friendship was strong enough to be strengthened by the many small acts which do.”


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