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When Families Choose Assisted Dying with Cynthia Clark

After a terminal brain cancer diagnosis, Cynthia Clark’s husband chose to have a medically assisted death when his treatment stopped working. Cynthia shares all about the grief of losing your partner while being his primary caregiver, how she parented young children who were also grieving and the nuance that comes with scheduling your death. In our last episode, we talked to Dr. Stefanie Green about her work as a MAID practitioner. My conversation with Cynthia is about what it’s like to experience MAID as a family member. She’s an advocate for families going through the MAID process and has a blueprint for how you can show up for a loved one who’s dying.


You can Cynthia’s advocacy work and find her book, “The Many Faces of MAID: What to Expect When Someone You Know Chooses Medical Assistance in Dying” here: https://www.dyingwithdignity.ca/blog/the-many-faces-of-maid/


This podcast is produced by Larj Media.


Transcript:

[00:00:00] Sarah Cavanaugh: Hi, I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit. Every episode, we explore death, dying, and grief through stories by authors familiar with the topic. Writers are our translators. They take what is inexpressible, impossible to explain, and they translate it into words on a page. Today I'm talking with Cynthia Clark about her experience helping her husband navigate a medically assisted death. 

He was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer with a grim prognosis. And because they live in Canada, he could choose to have MAID. Cynthia shares all about the grief of losing your partner while being his primary caregiver, and the nuance that comes with scheduling your death. After her husband died, Cynthia got involved in advocating for more support for families going through the MAID process. 

That's when she wrote her book, “The Many Faces of MAID, What to Expect When Someone You Know Chooses Medical Assistance in Dying.” She captured many stories, and since then, her dad also chose to have maid. In our last episode, I talked with Dr. Stephanie Green about her work as a MAID practitioner. One theme that emerged was how important it was for family to show up for the person dying. 

I wanted to talk to Cynthia today because she has a blueprint for what that emotional and logistical support even looks like. She has a lot of insight to share about what to expect, the support you need as a loved one, and the rollercoaster of emotions you might experience. 

Sarah Cavanaugh: Well, hi, Cynthia. Welcome to Peaceful Exit.  

Cynthia Clark: Thank you for having me today.  

Sarah Cavanaugh: Thanks so much for being here. I know it's probably hard to talk about your late husband, but I know, like me, you want us to be talking more about this subject.  

[00:01:55] Cynthia Clark: Absolutely. I think just because it's not easy doesn't mean that it's not important. 

[00:02:00] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. You know, your first chapter kind of examines your own feelings about death and dying. And in Peaceful Exit, we call this your story about death or your death story. What are all the experiences and people who have shaped your experience of death, like when you were a child into adolescence?  

[00:02:21] Cynthia Clark: Yeah, so I grew up in a religious Catholic home. 

And when I was young, in the space of about five years, our family had experienced six deaths, of both my parents’ parents and my great grandparents. And almost all of them were burials and Catholic services. And I just remember it was very sad. You wear dark clothes to a funeral. You, as with any experience of the Catholic church, you sit when you're supposed to, you stand when you're supposed to, you say what you're supposed to say, you repeat when you're supposed to repeat. 

And then you followed the funeral. The procession, like everyone got in their cars and drove to the cemetery and  

Sarah Cavanaugh: And stop traffic on the way.  

Cynthia Clark: Yes, exactly. And you knew like a line of traffic with all the flashing lights meant that this was a funeral and everyone just stopped and let them pass. Then I can recall often visiting the cemetery with my mother where she now had four family members. 

And we would clean the headstones and replace the flowers and walk around and hear stories about this person and that person. And I always found it interestingly weird how we would also have to check who was new. Who else was here since the last time we'd come. And when I got a little bit older, I can remember my brother and I would run around and read all the epitaphs. 

I thought it was really fascinating to read the things that people chose to memorialize themselves or their family members with and think, yeah, I want that one. I don't want that one. Same with like funeral programs, which poems they put. Oh, I want this one. No, I don't like that one. So yeah, I grew up with a very regimented idea of how you celebrate death. 

All of this to say about my past that my past kind of informed how I started thinking about death and dying, but nothing about my current life really embraces much of those traditions. So I'm aware of them, and I'm aware of kind of where I started out. But when my husband died, my children were little, and The first birthday after he died was only a few months later, and the kids wanted to have a birthday party. 

We also wanted to reclaim the database because he had actually been diagnosed on his own birthday. So we went to our favorite family restaurant and we invited all our friends and all of my family and we had a party and at the end, I asked the waiter, Oh, could you please bring like cake or ice cream, whatever it was for all of the kids and they said, Oh yeah, is it a birthday? 

I said, yes. And then they said, Oh, whose birthday is it? I said, Oh, well, he's not here, but we're celebrating anyway. So yeah, then we went to the gravesite and lit some candles and sang daddy happy birthday and it didn't feel weird doing it at all. I feel lucky I was guided a bit by my children. I mean, that's what they wanted to do. 

And for them, it was totally normal. And, you know, in the years since that was probably the biggest celebration, but we always try to do something both on like his death day and on his birthday. It's become less important to my children to celebrate the day he died, but they still really like to celebrate his birthday. 

And interestingly for me, it's the opposite.  

Sarah Cavanaugh: Oh, interesting. Why?  

Cynthia Clark: Well, my eldest and I had a conversation this past anniversary, so it was four years. And they didn't really feel like it was important. It happened to be on a weekend to honor the death date. They had things they wanted to do with their friends. 

And I was a little bit hurt, I'm not gonna lie, was not how I envisioned we would spend the day. And they said to me, when I think about him, it's sad because I think I don't have him anymore. So I don't need to spend my time being sad on a specific sad day because I'm often sad about it. But what I like to do is remember the happy things on his birthday. 

And I thought, oh wow, that's fascinating because for me most of my memories are happy. And so when the time of year comes around his death, it's almost like it's just in my bones. I can't control it. I get sad. I don't. look at the calendar and, oh, I have to be sad today. It's more like it just comes out. 

And so I just need to let it out. So we decided, okay, well, I'm going to do this for me. And I'm glad that you can recognize that's not what you need. But yeah, I have a lot more memories with him and a more happy one. So I don't need to celebrate his birthday the way that they do. I don't mind but it's not as necessary. 

[00:07:20] Sarah Cavanaugh: It's such a gift to your children to have that open conversation about what your true feelings are on those days and be open to that. What kind of conversations did you and your husband have about death?  

[00:07:36] Cynthia Clark: A lot of the decisions that we made and conversations we had about his death were what's going to be best for the children. 

Will it be better for them if they have memory, will be of the last few months, what do we want those to look like? We made a really big effort in the last It wasn't quite a year from diagnosis till death to do a lot of things like my husband's motto was “quit while it's still fun.” And he wanted to be still able to live at home, still able to take care of himself independently. 

to go on one last family vacation. So we did a lot of things and tried to make a lot of memories. But recently I've been reflecting on when I look at the pictures of that last year, I see manufactured memories. I don't see the time we went to this place and oh wasn't that wonderful that I hope my kids remember. 

I kind of remember how hard it was to get ourselves organized that day or how awful he was feeling and we powered through or Oh, that soccer tournament in wherever was like the day after the first MAID assessment. You know, I see kind of what was really happening, not just like what the camera captured. 

So I wonder if their experience of him dying is maybe more positive than mine. Because they weren't taking care of him every day and they weren't behind the scenes like manufacturing memories.  

[00:09:07] Sarah Cavanaugh: And you knew all the intimate details that they may not have. How old were your kids?  

[00:09:12] Cynthia Clark: They were seven and nine. 

Sarah Cavanaugh: Seven and nine. So very young. Yeah.  

Cynthia Clark: Yeah. You asked me though, did my husband and I talk about death? Interestingly, the things that we talked about, now this is going to be maybe not controversial, but I discovered that sometimes what you say you want is either uninformed or kind of off the cuff or just based on what you know or what you've experienced. 

So we had gone and done our wills together and in both of our wills we said, just cremate me. But as I started to get closer to like his actual death and started to think through what will this look like and what will be, in my opinion, good for the kids. I started to realize, and maybe not just good for the kids, there's probably a bit for me as well, I remember distinctly that one of my six grandparents was cremated. 

And I remember being confused and unsettled by this idea when I was around the age that my kids were when their dad died. And so I talked to my kids about what will happen with the body and after people die, what are some different people's customs and some people do this and some people do that and You can spend time with the body or not, maybe he'll die at home, maybe he won't, and some people bury the dead, like we see that a lot on TV. 

But some people also cremate them, and what does cremation, well, you burn them. What? Like, we don't want to burn daddy. Which kind of jived with the feeling that I resonated with, like, oh yeah, why did we both say we want that? Well, cause we have this idea, it's probably cheaper and way less hassle. Well, I found out here, it's not actually that much cheaper. 

And it didn't feel good for me, and it certainly didn't feel good for the kids. So I said to him one day, um, how important is this to you? Because I don't think we're gonna do that. Sort of looked at me like, why wouldn't you do that? And I explained this whole, you know, the kid's reaction and how I just wasn't sure. 

And I thought, I don't know, like, I used to go every summer with my mom. We'd clean the headstones, we'd see where they were, like, we watched them all go in the ground. You know, I left the church and I don't resonate with those beliefs, but that was kind of comforting now that I think about it. And maybe that will be good for them. 

The continuity of see your alive body, see your dead body, see your body in the casket, see the casket go on the ground, have a memorial, like a place they can go if they want to. I think that might be important. I think that I need to do that for the kids. And he kind of looked at me like, Okay, whatever. I don't really care. 

I'll be dead. And that was the beginning of a few decisions that informed this opinion that I have that is a little bit controversial. I think it's really important that we leave some grieving type decisions to the people that have to grieve. My dad actually had made and died six months ago when he wanted to talk a lot about what he wanted to have happen to him after. 

And I almost got into a little bit of an argument one day because I said, Dad, can we spend our time talking about what you want to do in the last moments, hours, days of your life? Why are you so intent on telling us how we need to process your body? We, in my opinion, should be left to do what we need to do as a family to grieve you. 

And you've made your wishes known, and in my opinion, mom is the center of your loss. And if mom gets joy out of honoring your wishes, then I will support that. But if mom tells me she wants to do something different I'm not going to lie to you. I'll support mom to do something different, but why are you summing up on this? 

And he told me, well, I'm just really worried that you are going to not do what I want. And I said, okay, well, because I didn't do what my husband wanted. Yeah, I don't want to be buried. And I said, okay, well, dad, I can promise you I will not impose my wishes on my mom, but I can't promise you that I would ever impose your wishes on mom. 

Does that make sense? That makes sense. My kids and I had a big funeral with all their friends and all our friends and someone came up to me and said oh this was so lovely and your husband would have loved this and I said no he would have hated this. He would have hated the attention, he would have hated the people, he would have hated the cost, he would have hated the time, he would have hated everything about this but that's okay. 

Because we did it for us. He wasn't here.  

[00:14:22] Sarah Cavanaugh: Well, I think that you make such a great point about loved ones left behind afterwards need to have some agency in how they manage. And at Peaceful Exit we're talking all about make sure you communicate your wishes so at least they know. what they are, because in so many cases, people have no idea what their loved one wants at the end of their life. 

And once you have that, you know, there's always a plan B. A friend of mine in Alaska, she asked me to come up at the end of her life, and she really wanted to donate her body to science, which was in Arkansas. And she didn't put aside any money or any plans or even contact the people in Arkansas. And I'm like, well, we're not going to be able to send your body from Alaska to Arkansas. 

Cynthia Clark: That's just, that was a nice idea.  

Sarah Cavanaugh: And it reflects on her as a person and really we have so much love in our hearts for her and her wanting to do that. but logistically it was impossible. 

[00:15:15] Cynthia Clark: So another interesting kind of note on that is that I made friends with a woman who was also being widowed young and on the day that her husband ended up dying. 

She called me and we chatted and then the next day she called and said, what am I supposed to do? He's gone. What did you do on the first day as a widow? I'm just wandering around my house aimlessly. I have no idea what my purpose is or how to pass the time. And they had had a living, celebration of life and he didn't want anything afterwards. 

And it was in that moment I said, well, I think I spent close to a week planning a funeral. And now that you say that, this is a really good reason why maybe these are a good idea because it's a distraction and something to do and it was a way for people to come together and The family to choose the poems and choose the readings and talk about the person, write the eulogy and pick the flowers and all this stuff that probably when I wrote my will I thought Waste of time, waste of time, waste of money, waste of money, waste of time. 

Just do something simple. But I came to realize, hmm, like some of this process and ceremony serves like a healing kind of processing purpose that is quite useful. 

[00:16:46] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. Traditions like Shiva where they take that week and they're not allowed to do anything and they're just, need to accept and receive love and care. 

Yeah. There's a lot of traditions that take that week and sometimes a year. Not in our culture. We like, we like to go back to work.  

[00:17:08] Cynthia Clark: Yeah. It's just like, hurry up and oh, it's six months. You're good now, right? Yeah. Yeah. You're good. Right. Unless you've moved on, unless you're dating and then like, how can you do that so quickly? 

[00:17:17] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah, exactly. You shouldn't be over it. So can you share the story of your husband's terminal illness and your decision to choose Maid? Just as a matter of context, we spoke with Stephanie Green a couple weeks ago. And so we kind of have the doctor's perspective. And so you're sort of this beautiful personal experience perspective. 

So I would love the story around your husband and, and how you came to choose that.  

[00:17:48] Cynthia Clark: He was diagnosed with glioblastoma, which is a really hopeless diagnosis. Everyone that talked to us had sort of, I used to call it puppy dog face. As soon as you said it, like, there's not even anything hopeful they can say to you. 

So, silver lining in that is you don't spend much time like chasing rainbows or being hopeful or negotiating. You get on with it. Making your final plans and taking your last holiday. And he said to me, I want to do the standard course of treatment, have a little bit more time, like give you guys time to get used to the idea of this. 

But I don't want heroic measures. I don't want to do clinical trials or uproot the family or chase rainbows. As soon as the course of treatment is not working, quit while it's still fun. We knew that MAID existed. We knew it was legal in Canada before he became ill. I think we had a friend who worked in palliative care, palliative home care. 

And so we were aware of how it worked on the surface. So, we were pretty aligned with that from the beginning, and at that time, five years ago, we also knew that because it was quite new in Canada, a lot of the colleges were instructing their nurses, doctors, not to bring it up, that it had to be initiated by the patient. 

any conversation about this. So because we knew that like at every medical appointment we went to we would bring up. Ultimately his wish is to have made. We need to make sure that you feel comfortable talking about this with us when it's time. So he did the standard course of treatment and he was about halfway through his chemo cycles. 

When the oncologist said the chemo's not working, there's another tumor. And then started to talk about treatment options like another brain surgery or more chemo or different chemo or palliative chemo. And it was this very disorienting conversation because what I thought I heard was it's not working, like you're done. 

But then all these options, which made me wonder, there more hope than we thought there was? Is this what you think we should do? Do you remember his wishes? So I had to kind of interject and ask, are we at that point we always said, like, he'd be done? She said, yeah, yeah. Does he want the forms? And he nodded, yeah, I want the forms. 

Like, nothing's changed. So he signed the forms that day. From the day he applied until the day he died was about five weeks. So once you're approved, they just kind of wait for you to decide or to let them know that you're ready. And I started to notice little signs of him getting a bit more confused, kind of getting steps of things out of order. 

And Um, It was hard because I ultimately had to tell him, um, you know, it's probably time to choose a date if this is still what you want to do. I wish that the healthcare professionals had felt more comfortable to guide us in that piece. I mean, I'm quite pragmatic as well, but it's still hard to have to, you know, as supportive as I was and I have no regrets and I wouldn't do it any differently. 

Yeah, it still sucks to be the one that says, you know, it's time for you to do that thing that I really wish like you didn't have to do. So it was, you know, one of the first couple days of school, I just got the kids into school and then I went home and had this difficult conversation with my husband and it was always clear what he wanted and it was always clear that he relied on me to kind of be his voice and help make sure that he would get what he wanted. 

In Canada, you have to be competent in the moment of, but we do now have this thing that I'm sure Stefanie Green explained. It's called the waiver of final consent. And so you have to be competent when you apply and you have to be competent when you're assessed. And so once you've been assessed and deemed to be eligible by two doctors, then it's up to you to choose a date. 

And so when you set your date, if there's a risk of you losing capacity in that small window of time. You can sign a waiver that when you set a date with your provider that when you come next week to help me die, if I've lost capacity, proceed anyway. We didn't have that option when my husband was sick. 

So there was this huge risk, it was almost like playing chicken on the highway, of If you aren't mentally competent when they come to help you, you can't have this. And add to that logistical issues. In BC, in some places it's much quicker, but in Alberta, they need five business days notice to make an appointment for someone to come. 

Not just someone, the person who's already assessed you to have a space in their calendar to come and help you die. So I was navigating this ship with my husband of need to call to choose a date so that we get a date by which time we hope he'll still be competent and I'm not a medical professional so I don't know how quickly this disease will progress or affect your life. 

ability to consent to medical procedures. So when he chose the date, I was about, I think, one week later.  

[00:23:44] Sarah Cavanaugh: Well, you know what you were saying about earlier, like after the death, the griever should have some agency and what happens to the body. What did MAID application process? What did it? I mean, to you, you say you're pragmatic and you are on board, but in reality, how did that go for you? 

[00:24:07] Cynthia Clark: It's hard because I haven't lost a husband to not MAID, right? Well, or via MAID. Or a father. Yeah. Well, so maybe a more interesting question to answer though, is I've now lost a husband and a father and both used MAID. That's right. Right. And when it was my father, even though I knew how it went and was even often consulting and giving them advice, it was, okay, I've chosen a date and I'm going to die in three days. 

And I remember this jarring, like, Oh, holy cow. Like, you know, it's going to come, you know, it's going to come, but then it comes. For me personally, in both circumstances, it was really clear. in my mind, but this is something I've observed is often not clear to many other people that go through it. I didn't feel like they were choosing to leave us. 

Like it was really clear they're going to die anyway, like this illness is taking them from us. This is just a medical procedure. At the end. So the process, I would say signing the form for my husband was like, it says right there, I'm no longer wish to live. And that was really weird to sign. He still has who knows how long, one month, two months, four months. 

Like it felt very final and yet this is just the beginning. I would say that moment and then once you've set a date, it's really surreal and weird to know like the countdown is on. You're watching the sand kind of pour through the hourglass. And in many ways, it's a gift that you have some certainty and you can say and do the things. 

It's also weird. It's weird to be so ready that you're planning it. They're still here. I used to sometimes wonder, how does he feel waking up and being like, okay, like I've only got to do this four more times. You do the last time you brush your teeth, like do you just throw it in the trash and you leave it on the counter? 

Like you're never going to use it again. Some of those things, like, it's so final. I think there's a little bit of. I don't know, pleasant mystery and not knowing the exact moment. Having said that though, I don't know what it would be like to leave the hospital thinking maybe I'll see you tomorrow, maybe I won't, like saying goodbye five or six times and then suddenly get blindsided that, oh, that, that one was actually the last time. 

[00:26:58] Sarah Cavanaugh: Yeah. I feel like your husband chose MAID for you and for the kids. Why did your father choose Maid? 

[00:27:05] Cynthia Clark: I think if me and my kids weren't around, I don't think my husband would have even done treatment or surgery. I think he lost an awful lot. I think he stuck around a little longer for me and the kids. But in both of their cases, I think they chose it because it was just, life was getting hard and frustrating. 

And my dad was diagnosed with leukemia. And I think because he'd seen what a pleasant process made was for my husband. He thought, I think that's what I want to do as well. Unlike my husband though, my dad wasn't super clear on when he'd be ready. My husband was always like, when this treatment's not working, I don't want to take any chances. 

I don't want to live that end. My dad was, yeah, it's like, I know at some point I want that, but I don't know at what point that will be. And close to the end, he asked me, like, how will I know I'm ready? I don't really feel like I'm dying. And I answered him, the most truthful answer I had, which is, I don't know that you're ever ready to die. 

I think you're just done living like this. And that was exactly what it was. Like, in both cases, they were super calm when the day arrived. Almost a bit, like, anticipating, like, goodness, like, I'm not, the end of suffering. Yeah. For my dad, it was pain. Like, his legs, he had so much pain, he couldn't walk anymore. 

And it was the day that the second leg got so painful that he couldn't walk at all. That he's like, yeah, no way. I'm done. And for my husband, it was, um, I truly do think when he woke up from brain surgery months and months earlier that he just, he could no longer read, he couldn't write, he couldn't speak more than like small, fragmented sentences. 

He couldn't communicate and interact like the way he used to. For him it was sort of existential psychological suffering, not physical pain so much. It's just, this is not the way I want to exist in the world.  

[00:29:19] Sarah Cavanaugh: That makes sense. You know what you were talking about, that knowing the date of your death is surreal. 

I was thinking about, you know, birth usually is a surprise, like when the birth is going to happen, unless you have a c section and then you know this is the birth date.  

[00:29:33] Cynthia Clark: Yeah. There's so many parallels, I think, between birth and death. Like they are two very profound, mysterious experiences of life, having experienced both of them, but neither one is magical or beautiful or wonderful, you know, for both. 

You kind of have a plan of how you hope it might go, but you might have to throw the plan out the window. You probably have to throw the plan out the window. I remember having this candle that I loved and I thought like, and then we're going to light the candle and my husband It was the most off putting smell I've ever smelled. 

It's like, blow it out, blow it out, blow it out, it's awful. I also remember, yeah, you have this huge plan, but you forget you're going to be exhausted and hungry and in some level discomfort and disheveled. Similarly, I really hate in pop culture the portrayal of assisted death. It's often been very romantic and wonderful and so, like, someone's ready to die. 

Like, is not, in my experience, having a huge laugh or, like, they maybe are a little bit, but they're also ready. They're tired. They're sick, usually. They're not wanting to stay. And It's not so much magical as it is, in the book I use the word resigned. They're certain, and in both my experiences they weren't scared, maybe a little anxious, like let's just get this over with. 

I'm tired of everyone staring at me, crying over me, saying goodbye to me. There was not a shadow of doubt for me with either person. They were comfortable with their choice and they were kind of like, Let's just get on. They were not clinging, wanting to stay. They were ready to be done. Yeah.  

[00:31:46] Sarah Cavanaugh: How did you say goodbye to your husband? 

[00:31:49] Cynthia Clark: It was super underwhelming and like unremarkable. I think I kind of share in the book that I choose, I've kind of like rewound the tape in my head and replaced the memory with the hug that he gave me when he went into brain surgery. That was a man who wanted to live, who like, didn't want to leave his family. 

I mean, I held my husband while he died. The goodbye itself wasn't very memorable. It wasn't traumatic either, but he was ready to go. Yeah. And I, I held him and I stayed with him and, and it was profound.  

[00:32:27] Sarah Cavanaugh: The backbone of your book is really emotions. Is it? And I like looking at the structure of books, and you even have an index of emotions in the back here. 

You wrote that there was unexpected things that came up. Was the emotion of surprise sort of present for you, or what was the hardest emotion for you during that time?  

[00:32:47] Cynthia Clark: I think I had a lot of guilt over feeling a bit hopeful slash relieved. Caregiving full time and having two kids is a lot. So I can remember this day I came home to my husband. 

I think I'd been to the cemetery. I used to go walking there a lot and I'd kind of picked a spot in the cemetery and I came home and I felt really guilty. that I was already making plans for him to be dead. And I mean it was practical and pragmatic and needed to be done but it also feels like holy crap you're still here and like it almost feels like I've like passed being sad and I'm just on to picking a plot. 

And I told him about it and he was a little bit surprised like are we getting that close? And we had to talk about You know, Hun, like, I don't know. There's a piece of me that wants you to just, like, hurry up and do this. Because for you, like, the end is the end. For me, it's sort of like halfway point, like one of the mile markers in a marathon. 

Like, I don't know, it's the end of one marathon and the start of another, maybe. I don't know how much longer, and I don't know how to pace myself. So I think the hard feelings were kind of like, how do you reconcile? Like, I don't want to lose my husband. I don't want you out of my life. But similar to him, I don't want to do this for too much longer either. 

And kind of sometimes imagining like how relieved I'd be when that was over. But then like a different kind of hell starts, so probably that was the most difficult to admit. How do you feel about both those things? Like what kind of wife am I? So yeah, a lot of anticipation and guilt.  

[00:35:01] Sarah Cavanaugh: That makes sense. 

A lot of people I speak to have that sort of dialectic. You love that person and you don't want them to go. I just spoke with Irini Carson and she said at the end of our interview, she loved the idea of death being like a door you walk through, but That person walks through the door, you're still on the other side, you still have a life to live. 

[00:35:30] Cynthia Clark: My mom and I were talking over the weekend. She kind of looks to me a lot and I think it brings her a lot of comfort to be able to say, you know what I'm feeling. It's not just talking to someone who kind of, you know, can imagine. I mean, anyone who's lost a partner, I always feel like gets me in a way that people who haven't don't. 

And at the time, knowing what that main process is like, it was really helpful for them that I'd been through it and that I knew what was coming or what it was going to be like, like little things. I remember the doctor was explaining the process to my mom and dad and said something, you know, In a minute or two, you'll be quite tired. 

And I said, oh no, like in 30 seconds, he'll be asleep. Like, say what you need to say. You don't have two minutes and he's not just going to be tired. Like, he's going to be asleep. Like, not dead, but pretty much gone. Like, say what you need to say because it's, it's fast.  

[00:36:33] Sarah Cavanaugh: When your husband first died, there's these conflicting messages about putting your kids first and then taking care of yourself, like putting your oxygen mask on before assisting others. You can't pour from an empty cup. How did you manage that? 

[00:36:47] Cynthia Clark: Oh my God. I didn't. Yeah, I didn't. I think probably many people that experience loss struggle with this, but it was super obvious to me that all these mixed messages that take care of yourself, you can't pour from an empty cup and then suddenly, well, what do you mean you want us to take the kids? 

Like, what are you going to do? What do you mean you're going out or you're self-caring or you're having a massage? It was so disorienting trying to figure out, like, how do I actually take care of myself so I can be a good parent? It was like a ping pong ball. You have to take care of yourself. You have to take care of your kids. 

You have to put yourself first. You have to put the kids first. It was really, really hard. hard and self-care sometimes looks like I just need to stare at the wall and lay on the couch all day and not get out of my pajamas. And it's kind of hard to explain like why you need someone to pick your kids up from school because you're just doing nothing or you're not doing something that looks like it's valuable or curative or healing. 

You're just like trying to exist. You're in it. You're grieving.  

Sarah Cavanaugh: 100%. How'd you find your way forward?  

Cynthia Clark: How did I? I mean, so my parents were super supportive. I'm really grateful my dad waited four years to get sick, because my parents helped with the kids a lot. For many weekends, they took the kids. Um, Some really good friends and helpful community members were huge. 

I think I didn't actually go to a grocery store for months. Someone was dropping off groceries or asking me what I needed. So I had a lot of people. I'm really grateful for that. The support, physical support that I got. A lot of therapy also helped. A lot of going outside for walks and clearing my head and giving myself space. 

I used to think that all the balls need to stay in the air and now it's like, yeah, those ones are going to fall. That's fine. And a few more that I'm not planning on letting fall will also fall and we'll just have to be fine with that too. Like maybe lowered my standards a lot. Parentage from the bottom of the barrel a little bit. 

Or increased your acceptance. Increased my acceptance for imperfection, for sure. Like it's just not all going to be done. And accepting a lot of help. 

[00:39:25] I feel like you gave such a gift to your kids. And I just want to read this one little paragraph because it comes toward the end of the book. Well, it's almost the The very end of the book. 

My children learned young that life is not fair, that grief does not end, but that happiness still exists in the shadows. I'm grateful every day that they know it's okay to feel sad and happy at the same time, and that love is not finite. It's my favorite part.  

Cynthia Clark: Yeah, that's my favorite part too.  

Sarah Cavanaugh: You're raising awareness and creating infrastructure for MAID. What is left to do? What do you want to see change now that it's been four years since, or actually six months, since your last MAID experience?  

[00:40:09] Cynthia Clark: I want people who are, you know, loved ones and caregivers going through any loss, but especially MAID, to have more support when they're in need. going through it. 

I think we are, as a society, becoming more aware of the burden of caregivers, the unpaid work, and the emotional stress. The invisible work, yeah. Yeah, but there's still a need to support those people, not just physically but, you know, emotionally. And in a MAID process, specifically, that dual dichotomy of understanding you can be relieved and sad. 

You know, it took me and my kids years to start to embrace that we can love a new father and miss a dead father at the same time. We don't have to choose that you can be happy for the experience and sad that you lost it at the same time. I think that that kind of. not just awareness, but the psychosocial supports for people who are walking alongside someone making this choice. 

And not more importantly, but as importantly are the storytellers that also share their stories in the book are not as intimately familiar with the whole process. And they come in, you know, the further you are removed as a caregiver, you know, once a week or twice a week as a child or a family member, a friend. 

The longer it takes you to come to accept the choice of MAID specifically, or to understand that it's not a choice to leave so much as a choice to finish doing things this way. And those people also need to be supported, need someone to talk to. So our goal is that people have the support when they need it. 

And all the proceeds from the book, I should say, go to the organization called MAID Family Support Society, which is a society that offers peer support. Anyone can self-refer and just have a listening ear to talk to someone else who's been through MAID with a loved one.  

[00:42:20] Sarah Cavanaugh: Love that. With your life experience, what does a peaceful exit mean to you? 

[00:42:27] Cynthia Clark: I think a peaceful exit is one That's not so different from your life. I think that it would be really great if we could live in a way where we can talk more openly about death before we're actually dying and where we can embrace the processes of death and dying. I sometimes like to be provocative and say this, but my kids hate it. 

But sometimes I think about. What if I just chose a number and I just planned my life, sort of like you plan your holidays, like I'm going to go to this place, I'm going to stay for this many days, and then it's going to be over, you know, I'm going to go to earth, I'm going to live this many years, and then I'm going to plan my finances and my budget and wrap up my affairs and have a party, quit while it's still fun, you know, not necessarily advocating for that, and I don't know that I would choose it, but I kind of like to think that throw it out there to say, why are we so terrified of dying? 

And why are we so terrified of discussing dying without being sick and institutionalized and having your life become all about treatment so that you're choosing, you know, not to live like this anymore. What if we just chose to live well? 

[00:43:45] Sarah Cavanaugh: I love that. Thank you so much for your time and this conversation. 

I just so appreciate what you're doing and the stories you're telling.  

Cynthia Clark: It was really a lovely conversation. Thank you. Thank you so much. 

Sarah Cavanaugh: Thank you for listening to Peaceful Exit. I'm your host, Sarah Cavanaugh. You can learn more about this podcast at peacefulexit.net, and you can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram @apeacefulexit. If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know. You can rate and review this show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. 


This episode was produced by the amazing team at Larj Media.

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