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Woman pens right-to-die manifesto

“Today, now, I go cheerfully and so thankfully into that good night. Jonathan, the courageous, the faithful, the true and the gentle, surrounds me with company. I need no more.”

So ends a heart-wrenching open letter penned by 83-year-old Bowen Island resident Gillian Bennett, published online Monday shortly after her death.

According to CTV Vancouver, the dementia sufferer had spent the weekend saying her goodbyes with her son and daughter. When the time came, she pulled a foam mattress from her home to a favourite spot outdoors, took a drink of whiskey, and swallowed two barbiturates.

“There comes a time, in the progress of dementia, when one is no longer competent to guide one’s own affairs. I want out before the day when I can no longer assess my situation, or take action to bring my life to an end,” Bennett wrote.

“Understand that I am giving up nothing that I want by committing suicide. All I lose is an indefinite number of years of being a vegetable in a hospital setting, eating up the country’s money but having not the faintest idea of who I am.”

Her husband Jonathan said it took only about three minutes for her to lose consciousness.

Being that it’s against Canadian law to help anyone die by suicide, he took no part in the process. He ate breakfast with her, accompanied her on a short walk around their property, and waited by her side.

“I just sat there and held her hand, and within about half an hour she was dead,” he said. “That’s it. That’s the whole story.”

Jonathan described his wife, a retired therapist, as feisty, smart, and always eager to help others, especially her two children, six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

She also felt passionately about the right to die, which fueled her desire to share her story.

“She was trying to strike a blow for righteousness,” he said of her letter, which she spent months writing and perfecting. “This was a strong, strong conviction she had.”

In Bennett’s poignant manifesto, she described the toll dementia had already taken on her life – the slow loss of her memory and identity – and her desire to avoid becoming a burden to her family and others.

“I can live or vegetate for perhaps ten years in hospital at Canada’s expense, costing anywhere from $50,000 to $75,000 per year,” she said. “Nurses, who thought they were embarked on a career that had great meaning, find themselves perpetually changing my diapers and reporting on the physical changes of an empty husk. It is ludicrous, wasteful and unfair.”

She also urged readers to write a living will, detailing under what circumstances they would not want to be resuscitated, and expressed a hope that physician-assisted suicide would one day be available in her country.

The legal ban was challenged in 2012 by ALS sufferer Gloria Taylor, the BC Civil Liberties Association, and others. The B.C. Supreme Court ruled in their favour, but the decision was overturned last year in the province's top court. 

The case is scheduled to move to the Supreme Court of Canada in October.

In the meantime, Wanda Morris, CEO of Dying with Dignity Canada, said there are many people in similar situations to Bennett’s who take their lives early knowing they must see the process through by themselves.

Morris applauded Bennett for speaking out, and believes stories like hers help the public see the issue as more than just academic.

“I think it’s those stories that we’ll look back at and say, ‘That’s what changed the law,’” she said.

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