I don’t know why, but the news of Gillian Bennett’s death by suicide sent me rummaging through my bookshelves in search of this Alden Nowlan poem from the 70s.
There is nothing left but
a silence so wilful it becomes
a third presence, that
and the shared memories
that have turned on them, the habit
of doing this and leaving that to be done
by the other and, most conclusively of all,
a studied reluctance
to hurt: in the good times the bumps came
when least expected, now
they know the way so well
they can pass one another in
pitch darkness and never touch.
Each of them is alone in
a house haunted by the other’s ghost
so that he hears her footsteps
and doesn’t speak,
knowing she’d misunderstand.
If only there were some
sacrament for the occasion,
a ritual of
few words prescribed by
It would be best if it made
the participants smile—
say if there were a shrine
near the centre of every city
where there were whatever flowers
were in season, wild birds and
little animals (but not in cages),
and a permanent
Punch and Judy show,
the whole presided over
by a minstrel, a juggler
and a dispenser of
free wine and hashish,
and lovers could go there
and walk out
simply as strangers.
from I’m a Stranger Here Myself
Clarke, Irwin & Co., 1974
Granted these are two quite different kinds of endings, the one Gillian Bennett orchestrated and the one the late poet describes, but what strikes me is that we, as a society, sorely lack the needed mechanisms and rituals for letting go with grace and acceptance. And, when our fellow travellers want to exercise their right to make their own decisions, we seem hell-bent on policing them and trying to prevent them from saying, simply, “It’s been wonderful, but it’s time for me to go.”
On Dead at Noon, the blog she created to explain her decision, Gillian Bennett makes a stunning case for legal physician-assisted suicide. Writing in the early stages of dementia, she is frank:
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. That is only the beginning of the damage. 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 recognizes that “three outsize institutions: the medical profession, the Law, and the Church” will fight transformative change in how western society approaches assisted suicide, but she feels hope, writing that we
hear of changes in each of these professions that suggest a broader approach, guided and informed by empathy. My hope is that all of these institutions will continue to transform themselves, and that the medical profession will mandate, through sensitive and appropriate protocols, the administration of a lethal dose to end the suffering of a terminally ill patient, in accordance with her Living Will.
Gillian Bennett writes with honesty, humour, and obvious love and concern for husband and children.
This is all much tougher than it need be on Jonathan, and I wish he did not have to be alone with his wife’s corpse. Canadian law makes it a crime for anyone to assist a person committing suicide, and Jonathan, therefore, will in no way assist me. Our children, Sara and Guy, would so willingly be with their father, but the laws being what they are, we will not put them in jeopardy.
I am filled with admiration for Gillian Bennett and deeply moved by her story. If and when the time comes for me to make a similar decison, I will do as she has done. It would be wonderful if my beloved ones could all be with me as I sat in my Adirondack chair enjoying a final hour in my garden. A juggler would be lovely, too, and a minstrel … to play a little bit of John Prine.