'A heartbreakingly beautiful gift'
Diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, Kym Murdoch’s 82-year-old mother Janice ended her suffering through voluntary assisted dying. Shortly before her death she told her daughter "That was the perfect last day of my life.”
Below is an edited version of Kym’s story.
On the morning of February 26 this year, my mum Janice Murdoch ended her life via voluntary assisted dying.
She had pancreatic cancer. Stage 4, inoperable. She lived for 13 months after her diagnosis.
You could count on one hand the number of nights my mum had spent in hospital in her life, which was lucky because she was a very private person.
When the results of a biopsy confirmed what we were all dreading, I don’t think the worst part for her was a terminal diagnosis.
She was much more focused on how sick or incapacitated she would get and how that would affect her and those around her.
After listening to her treatment options, she agreed to palliative chemotherapy. After five cycles however, she was so weak that it was hard to believe she would have any quality time ahead of her.
We all accepted her decision when she decided to stop. She was not prepared to prolong this kind of existence. We were lucky though - scans showed the chemotherapy had done some good.
Slowly, she regained some strength and as a halo of silvery hair began to regrow, my mum came back to us for the last six months of her life.
Inquiring about VAD
As soon as she regained some energy after chemotherapy, she began inquiries about her eligibility to apply for voluntary assisted dying (VAD).
Those appointments were hard, listening to the questions and mum’s answers. Hearing over and over again about the inevitability of her death was traumatic and challenging.
“I don’t want suffering for myself but I also don’t want my family watching that. When things get difficult, I want to go quickly,” she would say.
During the months of chemotherapy, when she was too sick to reject our help, her suffering was not just physical. She hated not being capable, she hated not being herself.
She was used to being mum or nanny, loving and looking after us, and she wanted that dynamic to be our enduring memory of her.
Her pride and her strength were always inspirational qualities but I also knew what it would mean in the end if she had access to VAD.
Now that I am in the aftermath of losing her, I rethink all of those things she said and her determined state of mind. I have to because on bad days my heart has a disconnect from my head.
While the essence of VAD is that you have choices at the end of your life, such as mum choosing the day that she would leave us, what I have to remember is that she was dying. None of us had a choice in that. And I have to think about what would have been ahead of her if she hadn’t had this option.
For mum, a failing body would definitely have meant humiliation, embarrassment and a loss of her dignity.
No one who knew her would say an extra week or even a month was worth her going into a decline that became beyond her control.
I also think about just how good her final months were and it is my absolute belief that having access to the VAD medication was integral to that. She talked about it as her insurance policy, something she may never use but having it gave her comfort.
Once that medication was sitting in her pantry, it was like she started to breathe fresh air again. She embraced the window of good health that she had.
It wasn’t like we were sitting around watching someone dying - she was living what was left of her life with the confidence of believing that she would have control at the end.
The hugs were longer and tighter but she was happy and unafraid.
As we headed into 2021, I knew she was on borrowed time.
She was in the bathroom on February 23 when I got to her house, a Tuesday. When she appeared, I knew what was coming.
She took my two hands in hers and said, ‘Sweetheart it’s time’.
I sobbed, I protested. I urged her to call the oncologist and discuss what she was feeling.
“No, no,” she said.
“The last thing in the world I want to do is to leave you and the kids so if I’m saying it's time, it’s time.”
Of course, she wasn’t choosing this. Pancreatic cancer was taking her away.
Friday was February 26, my dad Stewart’s birthday. He had died four years earlier, aged 87. She would say goodbye to us and go to him on that day.
On what was Mum’s last night, I watched my beautiful Claudia tell her nanny what she meant to her.
She reassured mum that she would always be with us, carried in our hearts and in our souls.
My son Sam told her she was the smartest person he knew. And that she would be one of the most important people in his life forever.
My husband Mark told her how he loved her and that he would never forget all the love and support she had shown us as a family.
There was so much pure love in that room.
At the most broken that I have ever been, I was reminded of what I had in my life. I saw the young adults that my children had become, aspects of my mum in them both.
She got to see that too. It was like the universe had known that this ending was the way it should be.
As hard as it was to get though those goodbyes, they were a heartbreakingly beautiful gift.
‘Perfect last day of my life’
When they left, I felt panic about the day ending - I would only have one more night with my beautiful mum.
We sat together quietly, composing ourselves, dealing with our individual emotions. When she was able to speak, she said to me, “Kym, that was the perfect last day of my life.”
I went to bed knowing I wouldn’t sleep. My head and my breaking heart were arguing, she still seemed so good.
But in the morning, I could see her struggling more than she had let me see before.
Despite the circumstances, my brother Scott and I calmly followed the instructions and mixed the powder with the liquid.
We talked our way through the process together, probably knowing that if one of us cracked in that moment, we wouldn’t be able to help the other.
We had been told to have a drink ready to take away the taste of the medication and mum had said diet coke would do.
When Scott got a can out of the fridge, we saw it was one of those cans with a name printed on it. It said “Legend”.
We both smiled, maybe in acknowledgement that there was a greater force helping us through this unimaginable moment.
It was just the three of us, no nurses, no medical people. She was in the privacy and comfort of home.
I sat beside her holding her hand. We hugged and said ‘I love you’ one last time and then, without a hint of hesitation, she drank the medication. With her free hand, she reached for Scott’s.
As she left this world, she held the hands of her two children. As a mother of two myself, that is a profound ending.
If there is such a thing as a perfect death, I think she had it thanks to VAD.
Dignified, private and peaceful - regretfully not what we were able to give my dad.
Scott and I are both grateful that mum had the choice to go as she did. In our grief, we have the comfort of knowing her last day was not one of struggle and humiliation.
To her, it was perfect.
To those who have fought to make VAD a choice, I say thank you.
- As told by Kym Murdoch, Melbourne, July 2021