Petrolia author documents loss of sister in new book

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A Petrolia author and entrepreneur hopes her new book, about the recent death of her sister, will help families struggling while going through their own experience with medical assistance in dying (MAID).

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Dawn Stilwell’s book Jennifer’s Choice: A Right to Die Story, chronicles the final 18 months of her younger sister Jennifer Ellis’ life, after the Windsor woman was diagnosed with stage four inflammatory breast cancer at age 49 in the spring of 2020.

After enduring over a year of treatments to help rid her of the cancer – including radiation, chemotherapy and surgery – which brought little success, Jennifer made the decision in mid 2021 to stop the treatments, opting only for palliative care.

Stilwell’s poignant book explores the reasons behind Jennifer’s decision, the effect it had on her family, the moral and ethical questions that needed to be considered, as well as the processes involved in helping her sister. The book also addresses the lack of information available about the subject, particularly for family members trying to deal with this issue.

Stilwell’s book is based on the ‘grief journal’ that she kept throughout her sister’s cancer journey.

“It all came out of my grief journal,” she said. “When my sister decided to forego treatments and just receive palliative care, she wasn’t getting any relief from the treatments, they were just making her feel sicker. And her mindset was that if the treatment made me feel worse than the cancer… it became a quality of life thing for her. It wasn’t an easy decision for her to make, but she knew that her time here was limited.
“At that point, when she decided to go to palliative care, we knew the cancer was incurable but we thought we had months to years with her. And then, all of the sudden, we only had weeks to months,” she said, pausing. “That hit me really hard, so I began counseling with a lovely lady at St. Joseph’s Hospice in Sarnia, and she recommended that I start a grief journal. And as I was writing it, I was trying to find out how to get through this? But there aren’t a lot of firsthand accounts to be found.”

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Though Stilwell said websites such as Dignity with Dying Canada had some information about MAID as well several stories regarding end-of-life options, general information was difficult to come by and stories were often told from the patient’s perspective rather than the family’s.

“Because I couldn’t find that resource for myself, I thought I’d tell my story and create a resource that might help someone else,” she said.

The book isn’t meant to condone or oppose medical assistance in dying; it simply lays out Stilwell’s family’s experience. Stillwell had no real opinion on the matter prior to her sister falling ill, she said, but learned a lot during the final 18 months of her sister’s life.

“I remember it made the news in 2016 when it became legal in Canada. There was a hubbub about it then and it just sort of faded into the background … but I hadn’t really thought much about it,” she said.

“My sister started tossing it around about a year ago, because even when she got through her treatments – and she felt okay for about one or two months – complications came back that they couldn’t clear up. And that’s when she said ‘if I can’t get relief from these symptoms, then I think that’s the choice I’m going to make because I don’t want to die an agonizing death’…and that’s when (MAID) got real , and that’s when we as a family started looking into what it was all about – how do we do this?”

The prospect of watching a loved one perish – Jennifer died Nov. 13, 2021 in the arms of her mother and in the presence of her sisters and best friend, the date she chose – was a painful one for all family members, Stilwell said, even if they understood the reasons why she chose MAID.

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“Everybody wanted to support Jennifer in her decision. So no one came out and said ‘oh this is a horrible decision’, we wanted to show support,” she said. “But each of us had our own internal struggle with it. We all understood why she made her decision, but it’s still a heartbreaking thing to go through. It doesn’t make it any easier knowing what day it’s going to happen.

“It creeps into your life when someone you love has made this choice,” Stillwell added. “This is not going to be an easy walk, going with them to that point of death. That last week, I wanted to be anywhere else in the world other than the situation I was in. It was happening and there’s nothing you can do to stop it and there’s nothing you can do to proactively make it better.”

Readers of Jennifer’s Choice will have a lot to ponder after they pick up the book, Stilwell said. Not only will they get an honest, unvarnished account of one family’s recent experience with MAID, but they will also see what waters they will need to navigate through if and when a loved one chooses the option of medically-assisted suicide.

“I think readers will realize that this is a serious topic with serious repercussions,” she said.
“It’s a really complex thing to go through – the emotions you go through while you’re trying to support someone who is doing this, trying to deal with your own grief. I hope people will understand that this is something they should inform themselves about, to be aware of why year by year, the number of people taking advantage of this is growing.
“You might not know anybody who has chosen this option now, but it might be something you have to (deal with) in the future, and you need to find out where you stand on this issue, how you really feel about this.”
A portion of the proceeds from the book – published by The Publishing Shop – will be donated to the Windsor Hospice.
The book can be purchased on Amazon, Indigo, iBooks, Google Play, Kobo and Barnes & Noble websites. For more information about where to purchase the book, visit www.dawnstilwell.ca.

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