Friends speak out about former nun who chose medically-assisted death when faced with terminal cancer
She was always a fierce advocate, fighting for causes she felt were worth fighting for. That’s how those closest to Catherine Mitchell describe their friend.
The 86-year-old was a nun and taught for decades at Catholic-based schools. But despite her faith, she wanted to make the decision on how she died. She asked her close friends Janine Violini and Jamie Whittaker to help her on her end-of-life journey after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“I don’t have words for that. There were hard days, planning and watching her cancer progress. These were precious moments and that’s humbling,” Violini recalled. “How can that not be the most special gift — to be present in those most tender moments of life?
“How can that not change every part of me? How can I not be different because of that?”
It was four years ago this month that a historic Supreme Court of Canada decision overturned the prohibition of medically-assisted deaths in this country and now, Mitchell’s friends are telling her story.
Although Mitchell had lived a faithful life, she was aware her choice isn’t supported by the church. But despite that, friends said this wasn’t something she was willing to compromise on.
“She never really ever expressed difficulty reconciling this decision,” Violini said. “She was an advocate for this option for people. She knew people have other opinions about this but was very OK with someone having a different opinion. This was hers.”
“She had such diverse friends, people of every age, every background, and I think that’s how open her heart was,” Whittaker said.
“Whatever someone’s belief where they would have options, she set the bar here and wanted everyone to stand up,” Violini said.
Steven Engler, a religious studies professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said the rules are clear when it comes to opinions on medically-assisted death.
“The core argument in the Catholic church is simply it’s murder, because God chooses moments of our birth and God chooses the moment of our death,” Engler said. “It is a sin. People get hung up on does someone who commits suicide, and this falls under suicide, go to hell or not?
“That’s the wrong question because the Catholic church is clear, that’s not our business — God is the one who makes that decision.”
The Dying with Dignity organization has launched an Alberta-wide petition lobbying for faith-based medical facilities to allow assisted deaths on their premises. They’ve agreed to allow assessments but restrict the actual process at their facilities.
Mitchell’s friends who supported her are grateful to be able to share her story and continue her legacy of teaching.
“Even though she wasn’t my teacher in school, she was my teacher in life and [by] watching her navigate the world in a fierce and bold way, my backbone grew about 10 sizes being in her presence,” Whittaker said.
Mitchell died on June 8, 2018. She was 86 years old.
According to Alberta Health Services since it became legal in 2016, numbers have doubled. So far in this province 580 people have chosen medically assisted death as an option. 305 people accessed last year alone.
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