Medical assistance in dying or MAID, which was previously known as voluntary euthanasia, is legal in Canada. All applicants require two witnesses to sign the paperwork to commence the application process to MAID. As volunteer witnesses, we cannot be involved in the care of the dying or be beneficiaries of their wills. We go in pairs. We read aloud (or have patients read) a series of statements confirming that they understand the nature of the request they are making, that they have had all their treatment options explored and explained to them and that they are free to change their minds at any time in the process.
The visit is generally not long — roughly 20 to 40 minutes — yet in those moments we enhance our humanity by helping strangers’ requests for their end-of-life choice be heard and considered. “Choice” is an important word: I have never been in any situation where I was in any doubt that the person had absolute clarity and full understanding of what they wanted, because if I had been, I would not have been able to sign the form. The next step involves assessment by two doctors independent of each other to determine whether the patient qualifies for MAID. Once the form is completed, there’s usually palpable relief from the patient and always enormous gratitude to us for volunteering our time.
In such brief interactions there can be unexpected, profoundly moving exchanges and experiences. There can be laughter and humor. There is nothing I have seen more beautiful than patients supported at this moment by their siblings, children or friends, nothing more loving and compassionate than family members or dependents who are struggling visibly through silent tears, yet stay to support and comfort their loved ones.
Occasionally parents become aware their son or daughter is distressed and spontaneously give a soliloquy to all present; they announce that their child is a good son or a good daughter and plead gently, “Don’t be sad. It is time.” Once a man asked us to turn on Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mama, I’m Coming Home,” and we rocked out to it around his bed.
Every time I have the privilege of witnessing in this way, I feel the presence of my beloved friend in that room with me. Her spirit, her patience and her willingness to hear people live in this act. Every day it’s a struggle for me to imagine she is with us no more, and I find myself pondering, “Where can she be? How can she be gone? How is this possible?” I have concluded she lives now in my ability to imagine her right there with me in the room when I witness, for she was brave and nonjudgmental, kind and honest, warm and supportive, which is the truth of what takes place in these interactions.
Recently, I decided to take a full-time job at a nearby lab receiving and processing specimens for coronavirus tests. At the end of the first week, I was exasperated and exhausted and feeling quite useless. I am older than most of the workers, and slower and more easily flustered. The one thing I held on to was the knowledge that my friend would have been proud of me for working in that lab.
So this is where the dead go in our imaginations: They continue to live with us in the moments when we are sad and terrified. They cheer for us. They give us unbelievable strength and the courage we lack to carry on in situations. They coax us through. They lead us where we need to be, to experience the joy and capability that was them. They who have been with us in life manage to teach us how and where in death we can listen for them and find their voices and essence again.
Anakana Schofield is the author of the novels “Malarky,” “Martin John” and, most recently, “Bina: A Novel in Warnings,” which explores female friendship and the right to die. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
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