Mum starved herself to death so family didn’t have to watch cancer kill her


Scottish Parliament member for the SNP Elena Whitham has recounted the harrowing ordeal and the final stages of her mum Irene’s struggle before she died in 2014

Elena Whitham with her mother
Elena Whitham with her mother

A mum starved herself to death rather than have her family endure weeks of torture as cancer claimed her life.

MSP Elena Whitham has recounted the harrowing ordeal and the final stages of her mum Irene’s struggle before she died, reports Daily Record.

Reflecting on Irene’s death in 2014, SNP member Elena tearfully relives the powerful and lingering feeling of guilt that many families experience during the traumatic last days of their loved ones.

An impassioned supporter of the Assisted Dying Bill being presented to the Scottish Parliament she said: “My mum often said to us, partly in jest, that if something very bad happens to her, ‘just give me the big blue pill’, whatever that might be.

“She didn’t know what the future held for her but she held a firm belief that people should not have to hang on at the end with no life open to them other than suffering.

Irene died in 2014
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“She was only 58 and the diagnosis was terrible but we all knew what her views on assisted dying were and she would have taken an option for a less bad death, with less protracted suffering if it was open to her.

“We are left with the knowledge that she didn’t have that control or the choice and that things could have been so much better for her at the end.”

Elena, MSP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, suffered alopecia through the stress of her mum’s loss.

She told how her mother had wished to die at home after being told her sudden diagnosis of stage four lung cancer meant her time left would be less than six months and would involve inevitable suffering.

She said: “After her diagnosis she came home because we all would have wanted her there.

“But her breathing was causing her such pain it wasn’t possible to stay there.

Elena Whitham is a member of the Scottish Parliament for the SNP
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Tony Nicoletti Daily Record)

“I recall one moment my dad and I were in one room and my mum was in the other with all the morphine we had been supplied for pain relief.

“We were both aware that she could have made a decision in that instant but the terrible trauma she was having just breathing meant that she wasn’t even able to think about anything else.

“In the hospital she had no control of medication.

“The only control she had was to starve herself and to not drink. She did it secretly, to protect us.

“We watched her fading away fast and she lost three stone in weight in that few weeks. Looking back now it seems so unnecessary, so cruel that she was forced to make those decisions.

“I don’t think anybody should have to go through that kind of suffering. “

Elena still bears huge guilt over how her mum died.

She regrets not dropping everything after receiving text messages from Irene, asking her to go to Crosshouse Hospital, near her Kilmarnock home, on the Thursday she slipped into unconsciousness.

Elena says she still bears huge guilt over how her mum died
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She said: “By the time I got to hospital that night the nurse had a word with me and said she was entering the final phase, that she would not wake up.

“And that’s when she told me that my mum had stopped eating and drinking two weeks ago.

“At that point it all became clear to me, that she was lying about the milk shakes, that she was using tissues to soak up water to hide it from us.”

Irene died four days later.

Elena said: “We had some positive memories from the end. My mum loved music and we played some of her favourite songs.

“She was only 17 when she had me and we were great friends and her music was rock and roll, like Judas Priest and ACDC.

“The family were all there at the end and we can only be grateful for that.

“But an enduring memory is all about the terror she faced. At one point near the end, due to an issue with the medication, mum woke up, very briefly, and realised she was still alive, that it wasn’t over, and we witnessed that. It’s a moment that will never leave us.

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“My brothers, Kevin and Graham, are very strongly in support of assisted dying. I can’t think that many families who have been through what we have would think differently.”

Elena said it defeats natural justice to allow human beings to suffer as they approach the end of their lives, when most human societies refuse to allow animals to suffer in a similar way.

She said: “It takes a strong person to behave like my mum did and that’s what I said in the eulogy I gave for her.

“But why should they be forced to make these decisions, hide them from their family?

“Because we know these decisions are so often being made by people at a terrifying, traumatic and dehumanising end of their lives.”

When she was six, Elena and her family moved from Kilmarnock to Quebec in Canada, where assisted dying was legalised four years ago.

They returned when she was 22 and Elena, now 48, served as a local councillor before being elected to Holyrood this year.

She said: “It doesn’t seem right that such rights exist in some countries and not others.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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