Victoria Beelik

Victoria Beelik, author of Watching My Parents Die, lost both her parents in the same year. She reflects on her experiences taking care of her parents at the end of their lives and the contrast in their last day.
victoria beelik

“My dad was able to pass gently and with peace, but 10 months later, my mom passed away with great suffering and fear. I can never unsee what happened with my mom.”

Victoria Beelik shared her story in May of 2024.

I helped my dad move forward with his wish of dying gently using medical aid in dying, despite my mother’s strong Catholic beliefs and opposition to the idea. My mom, who he had loved for 60 years, was vehemently against it, feeling it was a sin. Although my father was also Catholic and came from a line of archbishops, his spiritual faith didn’t align with the rules dictated by the Church’s leadership. He didn’t believe it was sinful to end terminal suffering. So my dad used medical aid in dying without my mother knowing, a secret we kept until she passed away. Reflecting on my experience, I wrote a book, Watching My Parents Die, which shares the insights I gained, hoping to make other caregivers feel less alone in the challenges of caring for an ailing loved one.

Caring for my parents was both a blessing and a challenge, often leaving me feeling guilty and selfish when faced with emotional struggles. When my parents moved in with me, they made me promise never to put them in a home, a promise I kept. Apart from a part-time caretaker, I was their primary caregiver, providing physical care, emotional support and holding each of their hands as they passed.

My parents spent six decades together, both living into their late 80s. As an only child, we were very close. My parents, endorphin junkies, raised me with a love for adventure. At four years old, they stuffed my ski boots with newspaper and attached a leash to me to take me skiing. We sailed even during small craft advisories, heavy seas and heavy winds. After almost drowning at sea following a sailing accident and my mother urging my father to quit sailboat racing, he refused. He believed it was more important to do what he loved than live in fear. He said, “No matter how long you live, it’s what you do with your life. Don’t be scared of the end. Be more fearful of what you do while you’re here.”

My dad learned about medical aid in dying from a friend a year before his terminal prognosis. My dad had congestive heart failure, and he gradually lost his ability to partake in life in the ways that he wanted. With his increasing loss of quality of life, he did his own research on medical aid in dying and came to me, saying, “Vicki, my quality of life is gone. I’m going to die very soon. I don’t know when, but it’s going to be soon. Why wait until I’m just the shell of nothing?” He was very matter-of-fact. Though surprised by the conversation, I assured him I’d support him in whatever he decided.

Around the same time my dad neared the end of his life, my mom started showing signs of dementia, complicating everything. I was unfamiliar with how to communicate and care for someone with dementia, and her forgetfulness and combativeness led to significant conflict in the house. At the forefront of my mind was my promise not to place either of them in a facility, which helped me find the strength to keep meeting each parent’s unique needs.

My dad had already gone through the first request for medical aid in dying and was nearing the second appointment when a social worker halted everything upon learning my mother disapproved of his decision. This was devastating for my father, who had felt ready for several months. Soon after, a nurse who had previously worked with us visited my dad while his regular hospice nurse was on vacation. She recognized the cognitive changes in my mom, which she shared with his healthcare team. Thankfully, this information ultimately allowed my dad to move forward with his decision.

My dad and I enlisted the help of his home care aide, who took my mother out to dinner, giving Dad the time to take the medication with me at his side. The minute they left, I took out the stuff. When it came time for Dad to drink the aid-in-dying medication, he chugged it quickly without a break. He grabbed my hand and said, “Vicki, this is the best gift you could have ever given me. Thank you for your support. Thank you for your understanding, and just thank you for being here for me.”

It was the first time his hospice had let a family member do this without any of them present, so I had to text them throughout the process. He just drank it. A couple minutes later, he’s unconscious. Couple more minutes later, his pulse is slowing down. I held his hand the entire time. And finally he was gone. He just fell asleep. There was a little bit of a death rattle, and he was gone. And it was the most peaceful thing. I felt immense relief knowing he wasn’t suffering anymore.

I didn’t cry; I had already mourned. I then had to call it in and pretend like I knew nothing when my mom returned. The caretaker went back to my dad’s room and announced his passing. I let my mom go in first, then acted surprised by the news. I carried a thousand pounds of bricks on my shoulders. I don’t have regrets about supporting my dad’s decision, but I am immensely saddened by the fact that my mom didn’t support my dad, the love of her life and her best friend, in his last wish.

In the coming months, my mother’s dementia continued to progress, and she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and enrolled in hospice. The day she passed, she went from a virtual coma to screaming in pain. She screeched in agony, and I did everything I could to comfort her. Hospice advised me to administer morphine and lorazepam every 15 minutes to keep her unconscious.

Hearing her screams over the phone, hospice said they would send someone as soon as possible and instructed me to continue the medications. I feared I might kill her; knowing she was adamantly against this I was worried about continually dosing her with morphine, but hospice assured me to continue. When they arrived, they said she was actively dying and likely had only a few days left. Though she remained unconscious throughout most of the night on heavy pain meds, she would still flinch in pain. At one point she awoke and begged, “Please make it stop! It needs to stop!”

My dad was able to pass gently and with peace, but 10 months later, my mom passed away with great suffering and fear.

I fulfilled my promise to both of my parents. They remained in my home until the end. I carried out my promise and they’re not suffering anymore. But I can never unsee what happened with my mom.

For other adult children caring for their parents at the end of life, it’s crucial to understand the communication changes as people realize they’re dying. They may lash out and behave differently than they normally would. It’s important to remember it’s not personal and to redirect conversations to avoid conflict.

I wish I had coped better with the challenge of balancing my anger toward my mom while supporting my dad. Writing my book, becoming a certified doula this past year and helping other families navigate terminal illness have been ways to share my experiences and support others. I hope my story helps caregivers feel less alone and understand the importance of honoring their loved one’s wishes, even if your own personal beliefs don’t align. If someone wants to pursue medical aid in dying, respect their wishes. When someone is dying, it is about them. Your loved one deserves your support and understanding. When we don’t honor their wishes, grief becomes driven by regret and guilt. 

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