When Sian Briggs’ dad Gerald passed away at the age of 67, his family, including five young grandchildren, had to come to terms with the devastating loss of the head of their family, made worse by the fact they never had the chance to say a proper goodbye.
The patriarch, from Perth, WA, passed away in 2015 after a five-year battle with cancer, however Sian, 41, had to shield her three young children from their grandfather’s agonising pain and suffering as he neared the end of his life, meaning they were robbed of the chance to spend any quality time with him during his final weeks in hospital.
“There’s no way I could have allowed them to see him, he was in such a bad way,” Sian told Starts at 60. “It would have traumatised them for life. He wasn’t capable of talking to them, he was screaming and groaning. So they didn’t get a goodbye at all. He had a bad turn one night and he was taken to hospital and never came out. It was a very violent removal of a beloved figure from their lives for them.”
Gerald was diagnosed with cancer of the pleural lining of his lungs in 2011 and given a bleak prognosis of just three months to live. Incredibly though, the father-of-three thrived for five years, watching his five young grandkids grow and cherishing the time he was able to spend with them, before he became too ill.
As all proud grandparents do, Sian revealed that her loving dad, who she described as “the fittest and strongest” man she knew, had “so many plans” for his grandchildren – Sonny, Scarlett, Saffron, and her sister’s sons Callum and Cameron – adding that he felt “ripped off” at being taken away from them at such an early stage in their lives.
Sian added: “Nobody really knew how he managed to hang on for as long as he did. He was very typical man of that era, tough as nails. Part of him probably thought ‘I’ll beat it, something will come along’.
“But he never really sat and thought about death or got comfortable with it, so it was very difficult to witness when he realised that death was actually coming, to see that awareness and terror come over him, because he hadn’t really tied up his affairs in the way he should have or said the goodbyes that he wanted to.”
Sian, a journalist with charity Go Gentle, admitted she wishes she had been able to speak to her dad more openly about death following his shock diagnosis and believes her father may have considered the option of voluntary assisted dying, had it been legal at the time of his passing.
She added: “I think if we lived in a place with these laws, it would have opened his mind up to the options ahead. He would have processed his diagnosis rather than trying to deny it.
“I know he would be so mortified by what we witnessed and how difficult and damaging it was – that’s not who he was, dad was all about protecting his family.”
She also revealed that she still hasn’t been able to tell her children, who are now aged between 9 and 11, the true extent of their grandfather’s suffering because it would “hurt them too much”, but admitted the harrowing experience has made her determined never to put Sonny, Saffron and Scarlett in a similar position.
Sian feels very strongly about the issue of voluntary assisted dying and wants to see legislation rolled out across the country, similar to the laws of European countries such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, along with a more open dialogue within society about the issue of death.
“I don’t think my dad was ever told outright, apart from the first appointment when he asked ‘how long have I got?'” Sian added. “They were not very open about the fact that it was only a matter of time.
“People are uncomfortable with death, but you’re not going to be able to run from these decisions all your life. At some point either you, or someone close to you, is going to have to deal with a very painful death that involves immense suffering. In countries where they have these laws already, there is a lot more conversation around death and, as a result, people are leaving the world on their own terms.
“In Holland they have trained professionals who can even help you to draw up a plan for death, they’re so open about it and there’s so much counselling and assistance and discussion around you all the time. I cannot fathom the opposition to it here.
“You don’t have to make the choice for voluntary assisted dying, and if you do make it, it’s not set in stone. The important thing is that it’s there – a palliative option we are all entitled to.”
You can find out more about voluntary assisted dying and the work of Go Gentle by visiting www.gogentleaustralia.org.au.
If you’re depressed or need someone to talk to, there are many 24/7 support lines available, including Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, MensLineAustralia on 1300 789 978 and Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.