In early stages of dementia, 85-year-old woman chooses to die and to have her death be a teaching

I celebrate this courageous woman’s conscious dying process. And I celebrate her husband and children, who supported her difficult decision.

Dead at noon: B.C. woman ends her life rather than suffer indignity of dementia (with video)

Gillian Bennett’s final words on personal website make a passionate case for physician-assisted suicide

August 21, 2014

by Denise Ryan

Vancouver Sun


Gillian and Jonathan Bennett, walking on Bowen Island, 2014.

On Monday morning shortly before noon, Gillian Bennett dragged a foam mattress from her home on Bowen Island to one of her favourite spots on the grass, facing a craggy rock cliff, the place she had chosen to die.

Bennett, who was 85 and in the early stages of dementia, chose to take her own life with a draught of good whiskey, a dose of Nembutal mixed with water and her husband of 60 years by her side.

“I held her hand,” said Jonathan, a retired philosophy professor. His voice is reflective, resonant, measured. “I agreed with her choice.”

Before the shadows of dementia began to cloak her mind, Bennett created a website,, to be made public after her death, on which she makes a passionate case for physician-assisted options for the terminally ill and elderly.


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Bennett was painfully aware of the encroaching dementia. “I am becoming a vegetable,” she wrote.

“Every day I lose bits of myself, and it’s obvious that I am heading towards the state that all dementia patients eventually get to: not knowing who I am and requiring full-time care.”

Bennett wanted to face death as she faced the challenges of her life: with intellectual curiosity, courage and grace.

She did not want to be a “carcass,” physically alive but “with no one inside.”

So she decided to end her life before her mind was totally gone.

“She wouldn’t let me help her, and I didn’t wish to,” said Jonathan. “I don’t know where she got the Nembutal or the instructions; she didn’t tell me.”

Nor did she let him help her drag the mattress outside, although that final effort was physically difficult for her.

One thing her husband does know for sure: “She was absolutely not frightened. Not even slightly. She was as calm and peaceful as you could imagine.”

After she passed away, Jonathan let go of her hand and called his wife’s doctor, who came and confirmed death and notified the RCMP.

An RCMP officer interviewed Jonathan and together they waited for the coroner.

“The policeman asked me what happened and I told him. He was very good. Efficient and civilized and good,” said Jonathan.

The officer’s respectful treatment was a small comfort. He and his wife knew that if anyone assisted her, they would be breaking the law.

“Gillian and I both disliked and disapproved of the laws making it impossible to help a loved one with something as important as death.”

His brilliant, beautiful wife — who once had a thriving clinical psychotherapy practice — had made the choice she felt was morally and ethically correct.

Dementia had crept in bit by bit.

Lately, Bennett became increasingly forgetful, hyperfocused on certain things, obsessing non-stop about others.

“She was failing more quickly in the last six months,” said her daughter Sara, “and she knew it.”

During lucid moments in the last two years, Bennett wrote about her decision. Vegetating for years in a hospital — in diapers, incompetent, a financial and physical burden — was a prospect she perceived as “ludicrous and wasteful.”

“Her position wasn’t just that she didn’t want to be a burden to others,” said Jonathan. “She was also considering the kind of life she would have. It would have been hard on the rest of us and not good enough for her.”

Her final gift to her children Sara, 56, and Guy, 55, was to call them home for a last weekend together on Bowen.

For the last few months, Guy said, his mother’s condition was declining. “She was in and out. She was very aware of the window closing.”

So when she called them to say that Monday would be the last day, the children were shocked but not surprised.

“The last weekend with her was surreal. It was just so painful. Really, really difficult,” said Guy.

But it was also extraordinary. Their mother had caught a “last wind,” Guy said. Her wit and humour were sharper than ever. She was on her game.

During a night in the house that seemed like any other night, Bennett got into a dispute with her husband about the themes of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. She argued vehemently that the play had to do with the mixing of blood, inbreeding, genes. Her husband argued that the play was all about class.

Jonathan didn’t hold back, telling his wife she was wrong and pulling examples from the text to support his argument in a last battle of two formidable intellects.

“He was very clearly right,” said Guy, “but my mother came up to me in the kitchen and said, ‘Your father appears to have a point.’” She glanced in her husband’s direction and added in a sly aside, “But we won’t tell him that.”

Bennett had private moments with each of her children, taking Guy on a vigorous hike to the top of a high hill where they could take in the view. The next day she went for a walk alone with his sister.

“The last thing she said to me, I was crying, she held my hand and said, ‘The only thing you need to do is just keep being you.’”

In spite of going public with her choice, Sara describes her mother as very private. Funny. Smart. Irreverent.

For Sara, her mother is gone too soon. She believes that had there been legal, humane medical options, her mother might still be alive.

“If someone could have helped her, she wouldn’t have had to die yesterday. She could have waited. If the law was different so that she could have had help, she would not have had to choose to end her life as soon as she did. That is the hardest thing.”

Sara struggles to hold back her tears. “Even though my mom died painlessly in exactly the way she chose, at the time she chose, knowing that she left the legacy she chose, it’s still unbelievably painful.”

Bennett, a mother of two, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of two, wanted to be remembered for who she was, said Jonathan: “Lively and full of life and ideas and encouragement. An opener of doors.”

The final door she wanted to open for others, as she carefully closed her own, was simply, said Sara, “A conversation. About this.”


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7 Responses to In early stages of dementia, 85-year-old woman chooses to die and to have her death be a teaching

  1. Before opting for Gillian Bennett’s solution, it perhaps matters that one have 85 years under their belt, and more than one medical opinion. No one answer fits all. And should one come to accept the belief that we enter Karmic contracts in the between-life domain for soul development during incarnated life, it may be wise to seek regression session to discover what that contract may have been before opting the Bennett solution. It’s one thing to fulfill a karmic contract and entirely another to tear it up.

  2. Johny Stalker says:

    I just wonder (perhaps I tend to seek solution in cannabis for almost everything) however medical practice seams to prove it (cannabis) battles dementia quite well. wonder if she would have tried this if heard about. Aware it i water under the bridge now, thanks to pharma mafia..

    • I read a news release a while back about a new drug Big Pharma is working to release into mainstream medicine to treat depression. One write up seem to describe a drug that mimics natural plant extracts shamans have used for hundreds of years with similar results to psilocybin and/or 5-meo-dmt.

      When Robin Williams committed suicide I wondered where the development of Big Pharma’s new silver bullet drug stood. So many of my friends and acquaintances have taken their own life. If Robin Williams wasn’t able to obtain relief, maybe radical approaches are worth trying.

      What seems to be the prevailing narrative surrounding depression treatment is a two prong approach.

      (1) Tract Number One is the clean up your body, eat right, exercise regularly, get back to regular sleep patterns, then work through your demons with professional support a little at a time. I have no idea what the results of this approach are.

      (2) Tract Number Two (I have no idea what the results of this tract are) seems somewhat different being a shamanic inner experience with outlawed drugs. Americans go off the mainstream medical reservation on their own and explore alternatives, like shamanic solutions, consume hallucinogenic entheogens, under the guidance of a shaman-for-hire. In this regard I have read over one hundred case studies from Harvard Medical, John Hopkins Medical, Shamans like Dr. Martin Ball “Entheoginc Revolution.” Here is a typical “outcome” from the illegal drug approach apparently using the controlled substance 5-meo-dmt by a anxiety ridden youth:

      I wish all those friends and acquaintances who tried Tract Number One and still languished in their depression (and are no longer here – having committed suicide) had also then chose to try Tract Number Two. There seems to be a lot of evidence that some of these shamanic treatments using entheogens lead to recovery from the inside out.

      I read write-ups and testimony from individuals who trip-out on this powerful controlled substance (5-meo-dmt) most of the time at great risk because thy have no guidance and just do it, like the youngster above, and yet come through with flying colors, awaken a spark to live, no longer fear death, and become personally convinced through the inner personal experience that all is one and that God or some Infinite Intelligence or Universal Consciousness and we are all One. They go on and live. Nothing you tell a depressed individual seems to help. A beautiful, magical, inner experience that changes you from the inside out, on the other hand, does help.

      I would call that spiritual growth and healing and I read about it every month from sources with pretty prestigious credentials even as main stream medicine isn’t using it.

      Alternatively some studies with psycho-active drug (ayahuasca for example) being economically driven by a combination of shaman-for-hire-voyeuristic tourism on one hand to elemental-spiritual-healing through sacred shaman-guided ritual on the other end, have gone into some depth to scientifically demonstrate that the entheogenic activated parts of the brain are able to build and do build, new synaptic connections. To this layman, it seems that any chemical I might ingest that starts building new synapses, might be worth investigating before checking out. And if one need only buy a plane ticket to seek treatment,… sign me up.

      • Johny Stalker says:

        I use cannabis since I was 13 years old. I was always in conflict with first family (mother and father) then society, hypocritical corrupted asleep individuals, bought up or self sold. It could not turn me away from plan and never will, one more pointed that their ridiculous war on freedom (not drugs) will never be success. All I can tell that I cope with root questions now, have not a spark of suicidal tendencies, quite opposite I will laugh and mock face of insanity itself, lines are drawn, can not be forced into obedience or run away avenue. Not condemning or judging anyone, just saying that in world of enemies there are certainly allies too..

  3. rose day says:

    Ann, the comments on the Vancouver site so demonstrate this divide we humans share on the
    decision of death with dignity. My personal experience of the death of beloved family and
    friends has been one of a peaceful ‘letting -go’, the gift of which was a bit of lessening of the
    intrinsic apprehension associated with dying.

    It has been my observation that the sorrow in death is in the palpable pain of those mourning the loss and as the video demonstrates, the purposeful decision to die with dignity…without fear…is highly personal. Gillian Bennett seemed the kind of person who would heartily welcome sincere
    and challenging discourse on the subject…perhaps the ultimate gift in the matter.

  4. cdancer says:

    Dr Phillip Nitschke is being hauled over the coals by the AMA (Australian Medical Association) because they want to block the alternative of peaceful death and continue to give power to Corporate Medicine and the Pharmaceutical industry. So thanks for posting this.

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