I threw my grandmother an assisted suicide party
It changed the way I think about dying
This past winter, my grandmother, Sonia Goodman, decided it was time to die. Over the years, she had suffered a few serious falls. One resulted in a broken hip, and the subsequent procedures to restore her mobility had taken their toll. She lost her husband and two of her children, including my mother, who died in 2013 after a battle with esophageal cancer. At 88, Sonia said she was “done,” that she’d experienced enough of life.
During a visit to the ER with sepsis and extreme pain, she informed the team at Sunnybrook that she wanted help ending her life. At first, the doctors suggested palliative care, but she was adamant: no more surgeries, no more drugs, not even antibiotics. She had watched her friends pass away and my mother suffer, and she didn’t want to go through that. Neither did I: seeing my mom languish in a hospital bed for months left me anxious and terrified of death.
After many assessments, Sonia’s doctors, Deborah Selby and David Juurlink, agreed she met the criteria for a medically assisted death. The date was set: November 30, 10 days away. I was sad to lose my grandmother, and with her one of my last links to my mom, but my family and I knew not to argue. She was extremely strong-willed.
Sonia was not your typical grandma. For one, she never wanted to be called “Grandma.” To family, she was Yaya, after my sister’s childhood mispronunciation of “Sonia.” She was delighted when people mistook her for my mother, as they often did. She always looked wonderful, like a young Elizabeth Taylor and, later on, like Blanche from The Golden Girls—flirty, charming and sexy. We watched The Bachelor together and gossiped about celebrity news, work and my love life, the juicier the details the better. She wanted to try new restaurants and was a regular at her favourite neighbourhood spot, Jules Café. She demanded attention wherever she went.
So when she asked me to invite a dozen friends and family to join her in her room at Sunnybrook for a deathbed party, I wasn’t entirely surprised. She wanted to present herself to the world one last time. On the morning of November 30, Yaya combed her silver hair and did her makeup, swiping on her signature cherry-red lipstick. She was quiet but upbeat as guests crowded into her hospital room, all wearing turquoise, her favourite colour. Drawings by her great-granddaughter hung on the walls, fixed in place with medical tape, and my sister Vicki put on a playlist of Mozart and Bach. Yaya loved classical music. It was only 10 a.m., but we cracked a bottle of St-Rémy brandy because, we figured, if ever there was a time to drink…
She thanked everyone for coming and launched into an Oscar-worthy speech. “Leading up to today, I thought this gathering was all about me,” she said, “but now I understand that it’s bigger than me. It’s also the last time I will be here for each of you. Death truly is a shared experience.” Relishing the spotlight, she encouraged us to go around the room and share our memories of her. She was delighted when person after person remarked on her glamour. When it was my turn, I thanked her for giving me my mother—and for her advice to never leave the house without a coat of lipstick. She laughed, and I held her hand. When it was time, we raised our Dixie cups: “To Yaya!”
Dr. Selby then asked a few questions: 1) We talked about this a lot; do you still want to go ahead? “Yes.” 2) You know that means you’re going to die today? “Yes.” 3) Would you like another sip of brandy? “A sip? I’ll have a gulp,” she joked, before reminding us she wasn’t driving anywhere.
During an assisted death, doctors administer a series of medications. A couple to make her fall into a deep, pain-free sleep, one to relax her muscles and one to stop her heart. As the first shot was administered, she waved goodbye, doing a bang-on impression of Queen Elizabeth, her wrist rotating left then right, over and over. With the second, her head dropped forward, and within five minutes she’d faded quietly and looked at peace.
Most of us cried. We were, after all, watching a formidable woman die before our eyes. But it happened exactly as she’d planned it, with great conviction and composure. The moment wasn’t sad or horrific. It was oddly beautiful.
On the way out, I found a box of Smarties in Yaya’s bedside drawer, and my husband grabbed them. “I could eat some Smarties,” he said quietly, tossing them back. His reaction seemed exactly right, somehow. Yaya would approve.
A few months later, my sister Sandy received a call from Dr. Juurlink. Yaya had given him permission to share her experience on social media, hoping it would raise awareness of assisted dying in Canada. In the resulting 20-tweet story, he said that Sonia’s death helped him realize how good a “good death” can be. Within 24 hours, 15,000 people retweeted the post, and more than 72,000 have since liked it. Watching the thread go viral, I couldn’t help but think that Yaya was right: her death truly was a shared experience. Also, she would love the fact that she’s Twitter famous.
Susie Adelson is a marketer living in Toronto.
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