Assisted Dying

Above: World map showing where active euthanasia is legal (dark blue), where passive euthanasia i.e. refusal of treatment/withdrawal of life support is legal (light blue), where active euthanasia is illegal and passive euthanasia is not legislated/regulated (grey) and where all forms of euthanasia are illegal (red). Source:

SEPTEMBER 18, 2022
Physician-Assisted Dying
Death in Print: Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey, Meet: Dr Kathryn L Smith, GP who provides physician-assisted dying services, Death on Screen: Station Eleven
Listen to Episode 9 on the following podcast platforms
Or, if you've already listened to the show, scroll down for more info and links . . .
Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey
Photo by Jacob,_(1961_%E2%80%93_2006).jpg#/media/File:Richard_Carlson,_(1961_–_2006).jpg
In episode 9, I discuss Remote Sympathy by Catherine Chidgey, who will be appearing at the Nelson Arts Festival on October 22 as part of the Pukapuka Talks writers programme that I curate.

Remote Sympathy was shortlisted for the 2022 DUBLIN Literary Award, longlisted for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction and was a finalist in the 2021 Ockham NZ Book Award for Fiction.

In the story, Frau Greta Hahn discovers moving away from their lovely apartment in Munich isn’t nearly as wrenching an experience for her as she had feared.

Their new home is even lovelier than the one they left behind, and best of all – right on their doorstep – are some of the finest craftsmen from all over Europe. Frau Hahn and the other officers’ wives living in this small community are encouraged to order anything they desire, whether that be new curtains made from the finest French fabrics, or furniture designed to the most exacting specifications.

In the beginning, life in Buchenwald would appear to be idyllic. Yet lying just beyond the forest that surrounds them – so close and yet so remote – is the looming presence of a so-called work camp.

Of course the reason for me mentioning this book here on Deathwalker’s Guide to Life is that it not only explores death denial on the horrific, catastrophic scale that was the Holocaust, but also at a very personal, individual level.

I don’t want to mention any major spoilers, but let’s just say that Greta’s husband, SS officer Dietrich Hahn, is not exactly honest with her about the illness that ails her. As the administrator of the work camp, he calls in one of his prisoners, Dr Lenard Weber, to treat her. So the story also explores the power of belief in healing. It also contrasts the devasting contradiction in Dietrich’s love, care and concern for his wife, with his wilful indifference when it comes to the inmates. There is nothing humane about his administration. As Dr Weber so chillingly reports: "At Buchenwald we don’t have any sick. You’re either healthy or you go to the crematorium."

The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Dr Weber, in letters he writes to his daughter, the private reflections of 1,000 citizens of Weimer, the imaginary diary of Greta, and from an interview with her husband nine years after the war, presumably in preparation for a war trial.

Described as a tour de force about the evils of obliviousness, Remote Sympathy compels the reader to question our continuing and wilful ability to look the other way in a world that is once more in thrall to the idea that everything – even facts, truth, and morals – is relative.

The story dives deep into the way each character’s trauma influences their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Chidgey then begins to show how their denial begins to unravel.

If you're interested in finding about more from the author herself, she will be appearing at the Nelson Arts Festival on Saturday October 22, in conversation with Elizabeth Knox about both this book and her upcoming novel, The Axeman’s Carnival, which is the story of Marnie and her husband Frank, although Tama the magpie is the star of this story. Knox describes it as flat-out brilliant, a compulsive read about the liberating and alienating madness of fame.

They may seem like very different titles but, in both books, Chidgey says she’s interested in chipping away the façade of domesticity to expose darker places. In both stories, the savage and the domestic exist side by side – and overlap. She explores the consequences of placing a character in a strange and potentially dangerous environment – Lenard in the Hahns’ house, and Tama in the house ruled by Rob. Both Lenard and Tama act as witnesses to the events of those places.

Tama is not only part trickster, part surrogate child, and part witness, but he’s also a tweeter – that is, the digital kind. I’ve already begun building my relationship with him online. (On a recent Aussie trip, I met one of Tama's cousins in a stand-off with Kevin Kookaburra, which is pictured above!)
Meet Dr Kathryn L Smith
In 2020, Aotearoa New Zealand voted in favour of the End of Life Choice Act 2019 in a referendum, and the legislation came into effect on 7 November 2021. This makes it possible in certain circumstances to have medical support in dying.

But how many of us understand how this works and what it's really like? For the patient, for the patient's family and friends, for the doctor?

Dr Kathryn L Smith joins me on episode 9 to discuss her role in providing medical support to patients who choose to end their life, which she will be speaking about at the upcoming Death Matters NZ conference in Ōtautahi Christchurch on Friday September 23, in a session titled 'Physician Assisted Dying: when a doctor helps you let go of life'.

Kathryn is a general practitioner at Queenstown Medical Practice. Originally from Taranaki, she grew up in West Auckland and is a graduate of Otago University where she studied medicine. Her experience is focused on general practice, accident and medical, women’s and reproductive health, sexual health, sexual assault care, relationship work and sexual problems, mental health and self-worth, gender diversity care, LGBTIQ and family health. In addition to her basic medical training, she also has many other qualifications, in obstetrics, paediatrics and cognitive behaviour therapy.

As the Death Matters programme says, New Zealanders are at the edge of this new frontier and whether we are in favour of it, against it, neutral or undecided, much can be gained from exploring the risks and benefits more deeply.
Station Eleven
In episode 9, I introduce the series Station Eleven, which you can watch on Neon in New Zealand, and on Stan in Australia.

Station Eleven is based on the international bestselling book of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel, who I recently saw at WORD Christchurch in a Faraway Near session chaired by Rachael King. (The Faraway Near, by the way, is a fab concept dreamed up by WORD director Nic Low, which makes digital appearances by international authors extremely intimate, like they’re actually sitting at the same table as you.)

Station Eleven (the book) was published pre-COVID, which subsequently elevated Mandel to prophet status given that its story was so prescient. Set before and after a fictional flu pandemic that wipes out 99 per cent of the global population, it explores how the surviving one per cent begin to rebuild their world – what they choose to leave behind and how they hold onto the best of what they’ve lost.

Because the flu doesn’t have an incubation period, the speed with which it spreads is exponentially faster that COVID. On the show, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, people die within hours of showing symptoms — in their hotel rooms, at their steering wheels, or while performing on stage, like one of the main characters, Arthur Leander. Within a very short period, electricity, water and the internet stop working and, by the 100 day mark, civilisation has completely collapsed, almost everywhere on earth. The only survivors are those who had sufficient food and water when they voluntarily locked themselves in their homes or because they were stranded at an airport and agreed not to leave, nor to let anyone else in.

The premise could make the series terrifyingly bleak but – despite almost seven billion deaths – it’s actually strangely uplifting, possibly even qualifying it as a post-apocalyptic utopian – rather than dystopian – tale.

One of the main characters is Jeeven Chaudhary, who attempts to save Arthur’s life, after he has a heart attack as a result of the flu. Jeevan races up on to the stage but when he gets there realises he doesn’t know want to do: he apparently has no first aid training, let alone any paramedic skills.

About nine months after the pandemic, he is mauled by a wolf and then brought back to life by a physician called Terry (who lost her medical licence pre-pandemic). The quid pro quo is that he undertakes training and then helps her deliver a whole bunch of doomsday conception babies. Remember it’s roughly nine months after the pandemic hit so you know how these characters decided to distract themselves. Jeevan is at first a reluctant trainee medico until Teri tells him:

“You’re already qualified. The courage to bear witness to death is the job. The courage to be there.”

And of course formal qualifications matter little in the post-pandemic world.

Watch the Station Eleven trailer