British Columbia

Gillian Bennett, suffering with dementia, dies leaving right-to-die plea

A B.C. woman who was diagnosed with dementia three years ago has killed herself after posting an open letter online, hoping to reopen the debate about assisted suicide in Canada.

84-year-old woman feared becoming burden on her family after diagnosed with dementia

Dementia victim takes her life after right-to-die plea

9 years ago
Duration 1:58
Featured VideoGillian Bennett, 84, feared becoming burden on her family after dementia diagnosis

A B.C. woman who was diagnosed with dementia three years ago has killed herself after posting an open letter online, hoping to reopen the debate about assisted suicide in Canada.

According to the letter, posted on her blog,, dementia was taking its toll on Gillian Bennett and with each passing day, she felt she was losing herself.

In 1,699 words, Bennett answered many questions about her life and supplied in clear and apparently carefully-chosen words her reasons for the decision she made.

"I will take my life today around noon. It is time," wrote Bennett. "I have choices which I have reviewed, and either adopted or discarded.

"I think I have hit upon the right choice for me. I have talked it over with friends and relatives. It is not a forbidden topic. Anything but."

Gillian and Jonathan Bennett married in 1954. He was at her side when she died. (Family handout)

She also outlined her options under current Canadian law, which she said included spending perhaps another 10 years in hospital at a cost of up to $75,000 a year to Canadians.

Or, as she put it, "Have a minder care for my mindless body." Bennett's note includes much consideration of the financial and emotional impact of these options on her family.

"All know that it matters to me not to become a burden to them, or to Canada. I have discussed my situation with them all. In our family it is recognized that any adult has the right to make her own decision."

Bennett killed herself on Monday by ingesting drugs. Her husband Jonathan was a witness to her suicide, but did not assist her.

Note calls for assisted suicide in Canada

Canadian law, as Bennett wrote in her blog, makes it a crime for anyone to assist a person committing suicide. 

In 2012, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the section of the Criminal Code of Canada that makes it illegal to assist someone in committing suicide was unconstitutional.

That ruling followed a challenge from Gloria Taylor, a 63-year-old woman with late-stage ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, a fatal neurodegenerative disease.

It was a substantial change from a Supreme Court of Canada ruling two decades before, which upheld the law when Sue Rodriguez, also suffering from ALS, attempted to decriminalize assisted suicide.

Rodriguez committed suicide in 1994 and Taylor died in 2012 from an infection. And in 2013, the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the ban on assisted suicide after the federal government appealed the 2012 ruling.

But the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) has in turn appealed the 2013 ruling and the issue of assisted suicide will once again go before the Supreme Court of Canada.

In her note, Bennett suggests citizens should be legally obliged to make a Living Will, stating how they want to die and the circumstances under which they do not want to be resuscitated.

"My hope is 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," wrote Bennett.

Bennett added that they would have had their children join her husband at her side, but they did not wish to put them in jeopardy legally.

"This is all much tougher than it needs to be on Jonathan, and I wish he did not have to be alone with his wife's corpse," Bennett wrote.

Bennett's family knew beforehand

On Wednesday, Bennett's family told CBC News that they supported her decision.

Jonathan Bennett said in an interview at the family's home on Bowen Island that she prepared the drugs she was planning to take and pulled a mattress out into the garden where she could look up at a cliff.

Gillian and Jonathan Bennett pose for a photo in 2012. She had been diagnosed with dementia the previous year. (Family handout)

Within three minutes, Bennett was unconscious. "I sat there holding her hand and watched her die," said Bennett's husband. 

"We had been careful not to bring the doctor in, in any way, on what we were doing. But she was not surprised at this because Gillian had talked about this was something that laid ahead."

Jonathan Bennett said she had an intense belief there was something very wrong about the proportion of people who were unable to die the way they chose.

"She felt passionately about all that which is why she was absolutely resolved that she would not contribute to that. But she thought she might be able, with the website statement, to strike a blow for a different set of attitudes."

Her daughter Sara said the family knew her mother was planning to kill herself.

"My Mom's website does reflect accurately much about her, including the name, which shows her sense of humour.

"My Mom was strong in her views, she was strong in how she would express her views. She was very smart, very loving, very thoughtful."

Dementia gives "no quarter"

Bennett was diagnosed with dementia three years ago, a disease she described in her note as "boring" and "entirely typical."

Gillian Bennett with her children Guy and Sara in 1960. Daughter Sara said her Mom was strong in her views. (Family handout)

She was aware, she wrote, that there would come a point when she could no longer guide her own affairs. She wanted to die before the day when she could no longer assess the situation or take action to end her life.

"Dementia gives no quarter and admits no bargaining," she wrote. "Research tells us that it's a 'silent disease,' one that can lurk for years or even decades before its symptoms become obvious.

"Ever so gradually at first, much faster now, I am turning into a vegetable."

"Understand that I am giving up nothing that I want by committing suicide," she wrote. 

"All I lose is an indefinite number of years of being a vegetable in a hospital setting, eating up the country's money but having not the faintest idea of who I am."

To anyone tempted to think she was brave to make such a decision, Bennett wrote, "I am sorely fearful of being alone in the dark. I am scared something will get me. I do not want to die alone."


If you feel affected by this story, the following resources could be helpful to you:

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention - Find the closest crisis centre and the toll free numbers to call for help across Canada. Trained professionals are available 24 hours a day.

The Alzheimer Society in Canada - Find support for people with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, their caregivers, family members, and health-care professionals.

If you are in crisis right now, please call 911.

With files from Dan Burritt