Nova Scotia·Video

One Nova Scotian's story of dying with 'love and respect and dignity and peace'

Sylvia Henshaw's husband Douglas told her years before he became ill that he would not want to live with a chronic disease. When illness hit, he decided to die a peaceful death.

Berwick widow shares her husband's journey of receiving medical help to die

Widow speaks of husband's assisted death

5 years ago
Duration 3:52
Sylvia Henshaw discusses her late husband's journey of receiving medical help to die.

Sylvia Henshaw and her husband, Douglas, had talked about death many times before it became an imminent concern.

Henshaw, a retired nurse, says Douglas, a retired doctor, made it clear that he would never want to live with a chronic disease.

"From the time we were young, I knew that," Henshaw, 70, said from her Berwick, N.S., home.

"He used to say that he would jump off his boat, or if I came home and found him on the floor, I was to go for a long walk and come back."

That was many years ago. Years before Douglas had quadruple bypass surgery. Years before his stroke. Years before his diagnosis of Parkinson's disease.

But somehow, to Henshaw, Douglas's wish never seemed like it could become reality.

"I knew what he wanted, but I had never thought that it would happen."

'Life got harder every day'

Douglas Henshaw was 84 when he died with medical assistance on Sept. 6, 2016. (The Henshaw family)

Douglas is one of 31 Nova Scotians who have died with medical help since Canada's legislation governing that issue was passed on June 17, 2016.

A total of 67 Nova Scotians requested medical assistance with death between that date and March 31, 2017.

Around the time that Douglas received his Parkinson's diagnosis in 2011, the couple heard a story on the radio about the group Dying with Dignity Canada, which advocates for people who want to receive medical assistance with dying.

"He said that that's how he wanted to go. He wanted to end his own life when he could no longer tolerate all the things that had been going on with him."

But that was five years before medically assisted death became legal in Canada. After his diagnosis, "his life got harder every day," said Henshaw.

Losing manual dexterity was distressing to Douglas, who was once a surgeon, Henshaw said. Over time, he lost the ability to button his shirts, tie his shoes and feed himself.

"Picking up a glass of water, a cup of tea without spilling it became a problem. ... And just things that we take for granted — going to the bathroom, going to the sink, brushing his hair without dropping the hairbrush three or four times. That was his life."

Although her 84-year-old husband's mind was still clear, his thought processes had slowed down and his speech had become slurred.

Ready to die

For Douglas it was a "very, very frustrating" time. For Henshaw, it was simply exhausting — both physically and emotionally.

"No matter how much time I spent with him or what I did for him, I couldn't alleviate the pain that he had. I couldn't alleviate his suffering. It wasn't until I could support him in his quest to end his life that I felt I could actually do something for him that was helpful," she said.

Douglas had been ready to die for about two years. Then the federal government passed Bill C-14, making medical assistance with death legal. Douglas submitted his application three days later, on June 20, 2016. 

The next few weeks were awful.

"The anxiety he went through for weeks waiting to hear was just horrendous. It affected him in every way, and his biggest fear was that he would be rejected. … It was all he could think of."

He made contingency plans in case he was rejected, asking Henshaw to get a passport for him so he could travel to Switzerland, where medically assisted death is also legal.

Application accepted

But then the good news came.

"When he learned that he was accepted, he was just elated. He had almost five days — as he said, 'the best five days in years,' just knowing that he did not have to wake up the following Wednesday morning."

He was failing very noticeably, but he was just so happy.- Sylvia Henshaw

The weekend before he died — Labour Day weekend in 2016 — was a "lovely" weekend, Henshaw said. The couple spent a lot of time outside. Henshaw would push Douglas's wheelchair to their favourite spot and they'd chat.

"He was failing. He was failing very noticeably, but he was just so happy," Henshaw said.

They talked about what had been and what was to come.

"He kept telling me that I shouldn't grieve for him. I shouldn't let anyone else grieve. ... He told me over and over to get on with my life."

His last day

The day Douglas died, Sept. 6, 2016, Henshaw headed to the nursing home where he was living. He had gotten up early and was "quite excited."

"He just asked me if I was OK. … Then he asked me what I brought for lunch."

She had brought tomatoes from her garden, fruit, cheese and shrimp. There was coffee and oatcakes.

The doctors arrived. Douglas chatted with one about the weather and fishing and medicine.

Then Douglas announced that it was time.

"He said, 'I have to say it now. I want you to help me end my life. I want you to do it now.'"

The doctors left to prepare the medication, and Henshaw and her husband of 40 years were left alone.

"I don't remember what we talked about," she said. "We just sort of filled the time. We didn't have long goodbyes. We'd had so many goodbyes and so many difficult days and we were totally at peace with each other."

And then the doctors returned. They sat on one side of Douglas and Henshaw sat on the other. A nurse stood nearby, taking notes, recording the time of death.

"In one sense it was sad, but it was also peaceful," Henshaw said.

"There was so much love and respect and dignity and peace in the room. And I think to die surrounded by that is what we all want."