There’s Angelina Jolie, Bill Clinton, Ben Stiller, Mel Books, Cate Blanchett, Richard Dawkins, Bob Hawke, Michael Parkinson … the list of celebrities, politicians, thought game-changers and the simply fascinating touches all corners of the globe and all walks of life.
One name that doesn’t seem to fit that list is Liz.
Liz was 48, a businesswoman and dying of terminal cancer. Denton interviewed her as part of his 17 part podcast series produced in conjunction with The Wheeler Centre, Better Off Dead, that looks into the complex issue of assisted dying in Australia and asks why “good people are being forced to die bad deaths”.
“I’ve had the privilege of interviewing some great people in my career,” Denton half laughs.
“Liz is in my top ten. If life is water she was an Alka Seltzer.”
Watch Andrew Denton describe his stance on euthanasia below (post continues after video).
At the time of the interview, Liz – who has since passed away – was dying painfully and cruelly. When ‘every single door closed behind her’ she wanted to be able to save herself from unnecessary suffering. But no-one would help her die and she had to organise her death herself. It was complicated because she didn’t want to die violently and she didn’t want to risk any legal consequences for her 26-year-old son Callum or her brother. She researched the lethal and illegal drug Nembutal, bought it and spent six hours, on one of her last days, weighing it on her kitchen table and conducting tests for purity. She was forced to contemplate dying alone. She didn’t want to die alone.
Liz was articulate and laughed and cried with Denton. She was pragmatic and protective of her family. Denton followed her over her last year as she walked him through her life, her pain and the possibilities and planning of how she will die.
In one of the many memorable and aching excerpts from the podcast Denton asked Liz “in a perfect world” how would her death be.
She said she would be in her bed surrounded by her family and she wouldn’t want to make to big a deal of it.
“I imagine holding Callum’s hand and thinking about his birth at my death,” she said, her voice breaking. “I’d like it to be peaceful and without the anxiety of what is going to happen to these people that are with me now.”
Liz was one of the handful of personal stories Denton shares about the reality of suffering and dying. Liz has since passed away. In the podcast series, that has been 12 months in the making, he also explores assisted dying laws in Belgium, The Netherlands and the U.S. state of Oregon. He talks to doctors, nurses, the elderly, policy makers. He gathers information and stories from Australia and around the world. He presents facts and findings meticulously like a scientific researcher. He talks to people with the heart of a man who has seen and heard too many stories of “good people dying bad deaths”.
“As people start to experience it in their own lives, their perspective changes on the subject,” Denton says.
“Like most Western countries we have an ageing population. We have a baby boomer population watching their parents die badly and, whether politicians like it or not, this issue is going to continue to grow, it is going to continue to be in their faces.”
Denton is one of these people watching his own father, Kit, die painfully and slowly in 1997.
“I keep getting it every time I turn around. Somebody hits me with a story – their father, grandmother, brother, someone they love. It astonishes me how widespread an issue this is in the community.
“And no one wants to to die. It’s a patronising line to say, ‘these people don’t value their lives’. People cling to life like you wouldn’t imagine.”
Making the series has sometimes left Denton emotionally completely exhausted and “quite low” due to “seeing the pain and the fear that people have had to go through”.
“There is an incredible privilege of being allowed to be in people’s lives as they are dying. So I found that very hard, but what I found perhaps harder was realising the thinness – and what’s the nicest way to put this – the lack of credibility of the arguments that have been stopping [assisted dying laws] in this country for so many years.
“When I see how opponents of assisted dying have been willing to bend the truth and to manipulate what is happening overseas and to completely ignore the actual suffering that is happening in this country – there are times that I’ve found that very difficult to process. But what’s kept me focused on the task is the realisation that there is a great wrong happening in this country for no good reason.”
Denton says he has always “been against death” himself and acknowledges that this is not an easy podcast series to take in. He would be surprised if many people listen to all 17 episodes.
“People may listen to four or five and they may give them the spur they need to go and talk to their local member, to go and talk to their doctor. To give them the impetus they need to act on this feeling they have inside.”
After a year talking about death, talking to people dying, studying policies and laws, questioning politicians, objectors, doctors and experts, has it made Denton think differently about death?
“No,” he says quickly. “But I do think more richly about life. Having watched people dying and die, it is that thing we all know but the business of living clouds us seeing it. You know: get into it, don’t waste time.”
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