Should Euthanasia Be Legal In Australia? This Heartbreaking Story Will Make You Think Yes

In this essay for marie claire, writer Nikki Gemmell explores the topic of euthanasia and dealing with the devastation that came with losing the most important woman in her world.

What to do if you are a woman who’s been celebrated for your beauty and vivacity your entire life – and those attributes are suddenly taken way from you? What to do if a localised pain in your foot, which has resulted from years of wearing fabulously fashionable shoes, eventually vines its way up through your body and into your leg and your groin, and then through your hip and lower back?

Corrective surgery doesn’t fix the infuriating situation. The pain starts to curve your spine. Affect every corner of your life; your equilibrium, joy, serenity. The pain changes the set of your face, wearies it. Eventually has you withered around a walking stick, like an old crone in a fairytale. 

This was my mother, Elayn Gemmell. My beautiful, audacious, stunning mother, who had never been that little old lady curved like a comma in a fairytale – until she was. She had always been the radiant princess everyone gravitated toward, the life of the party, the woman who pumped oxygen into the room. 

She was the former model in her designer clothes, always with her pop of glorious colour, with the wide, vivacious smile of Elizabeth Arden red.

But suddenly Elayn couldn’t maintain any of this any longer. The unrelenting pain meant dressing was becoming increasingly difficult. Reaching around her back to snap on a bra, agony; ditto, bending to put on underpants. Or lifting her arms for the meticulous, hour-long make-up ritual she had conducted every morning of her adult life. She did it all, somehow, through intense chronic pain – until she couldn’t.

The bodily agony was a bully sapping her looks, and for the first time in her life Elayn was going unnoticed. Dismissed, ignored. She had always been noticed. Attended to, complimented, adored. The pain was tunnelling her into another life entirely. Exhausting her, and utterly depressing her. To the point of hopelessness. Vivacious Elayn Gemmell was spiralling quietly into a world of darkness, and opioid abuse.

It was a lonely and secret journey; few people knew the extent of her despair. The prestigious doctor who’d operated on her foot sent her from the hospital with a prescription for painkillers to ease the pain. Elayn loved those drugs, at first; they made her feel euphoric. Floated her through recovery, evened and buoyed her. Until her body became immune to them and they stopped working. She thought that upping the dose would be the answer, but her GP wouldn’t give her enough. So she began doctor shopping.

And then a random GP cottoned on to what she was doing. He threatened to alert authorities. Imagine it, a gracious elderly woman who’d never been to a police station in her life reduced to this world of secrecy and shame; desperate for her next “fix”. 

It all ended, heartbreakingly, one sunny Sydney day in October 2015, a little less than a year after Elayn’s foot operation. Elayn overdosed on her prescription pills, in her favourite armchair in front of the television, a tumbler of Baileys Irish Cream beside her. The TV was still on when she was found by some builders who’d been renovating her flat. The Bachelorette final had aired the previous night, and I like to imagine that my brimmingwith-life mother went out roaring with laughter over it.

But I’m sure she didn’t. Her death felt utterly bleak, and despairing, lonely. She did not tell me she was going to do it, did not tell any of her kids. She did it all alone, because she knew if any of us had aided her euthanasia death we could have been charged as accessories. And in doing what she did, she broke me. I’m not sure I’ll ever recover from the guilt – and the knowledge that I didn’t listen to her enough.

As Mum’s pain had increased she had spoken to me occasionally about her respect for Australia’s euthanasia movement. About her wish to some day die with dignity, on her own terms. Yet I’d cover my ears like a child, tear up, cry that surely she wanted to see her grandkids – my children – grow up (my youngest was only four at the time). She promised she’d never “spring it” on me, and I didn’t believe she’d ever go through with it. It was all just words; a wish not a plan. Or so I thought. 

When two police officers knocked on my door and informed me that my mother’s body had been found, they pulled out their notebooks and took notes of what I was saying.

Through the reeling grief I realised that I was being investigated, too. That what I said could be used as evidence against me. I had no idea about the nuances of euthanasia deaths in Australia, but Mum did. Unbeknownst to me, she’d been liaising with the contentious euthanasia advocate, Dr Philip Nitschke, for eight years prior to her death. She’d been attending the Dying With Dignity forums run by his organisation, Exit International. She’d imported his manual for dying serenely, The Peaceful Pill Handbook (it can’t be published in Australia for legal reasons).

My mother had thoroughly researched the topic, and realised that if she involved any of her children in her death we could be charged by the police; could face hefty fines and lengthy prison sentences.

That was her dilemma and her lonely agony. So, she kept us mainly in the dark. Saved us – but also shattered us.

And so the police came to my door out of the blue to tell me my mother’s body had been found. I had to go to the morgue the next day with my brother and identify her body. I had to explain to my four children what had happened. Explain to Elayn’s friends and colleagues, because she was due to work a shift at NSW Parliament House a few days after her death, in her job on the switchboard there. I felt ashamed and angry, unhinged and utterly bewildered. A danger to myself and others with the shock of it all. Felt like I failed my mother because I didn’t listen to her enough; didn’t give her enough air in the conversation to say what she really wanted.

I write to understand. Whether that be a column, an article, fiction or nonfiction. And so in those reeling days following Elayn’s death, I did what gives me the most comfort and strength and solace in my life. I wrote. A reallife detective story, beginning with a mysterious dead body. My mother’s. What happened? Why? What was this person going through? At the end of it I had an investigative memoir called After. It’s about mothers and daughters, the squeezed middle generation of womanhood, our young children and our elderly parents, grief and getting through it – and honesty, most of all. Always that.

I don’t come off well in it. Margaret Thatcher said in an interview that she had nothing to say to her mother after the age of 15 and it’s cruelly true for so many females. Those girls with willfulness blazing under their skin, impatient for their own lives; wanting to break away and contemptuous of their mother’s choices. Daughters, like myself, who are too quickly dismissive and judgemental, with our mysterious, self-absorbed velocity. Daughters who think of their mothers as the happiness stalkers, reining them in with their tut and affront. Daughters who are so caught up in their own worlds that their mothers can only cling to the edges, and the girls resent even that. Resent the clutter of maternal attention. The attempts to persuade, nudge, shape.

And then, sometimes between those adult women, there is a descent into the piracy of silence; from either side, from both sides. Which was Elayn and me, over ridiculous decades of our adult lives. Oh yes, we knew that flinty old friend – The Great Withholding – that crashed between us at times and felled us both.

The poet Philip Larkin said, “What will survive all of us is love”, and of course it must, only that; and we must hold onto it. Not all those wasted times of argybargy and grump, not the piracy of silence and shutting out. Why did Elayn and I hold ourselves hostage to that ridiculously negative energy of affront at various periods in our lives? It achieved nothing, was such a waste of energy. Yet Mum and I had the best year of our lives together in her final one, when I was helping her with doctor’s appointments and groceries, ferrying her to and fro. But perhaps, this balming connection between us helped to enable her, in the end, to do what she really wanted to do.

I’m haunted by the fact that if Australia had dignified euthanasia laws, then Elayn would have had tremendous peace of mind towards her life’s end. Would have lived her final months or years knowing how it would conclude – on her empowered own terms. She would have then seized life joyously as she ticked off a fabulous bucket list, surrounded by her friends and family. Instead Elayn died a death of unimaginable bleakness, and secrecy, fear and loneliness. And I was not there to hold her hand. To envelop her. To tell her how very much she was loved.

We never had the conversation about how she wanted to be farewelled, and all I can say is, talk to your loved ones about their funeral wishes, to avoid the guesswork about so much. And as I went through Mum’s address book and told her friends the news, again and again I realised there were so many gaps in the narrative of her extraordinary life, so many questions. It was all to come, we had time; until of course we didn’t. Everything was upended in a moment, and by then it was too late. I still think of all things to tell Mum and remember, “But oh! No, I can’t.” And so I wrote it in a book.

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