Australian Story: Mar 20

Monday’s Australian Story features columnist Nikki Gemmell, who traced the steps that led to her mother’s euthanasia.

One morning in October 2015, two policemen knocked on the door of writer and columnist Nikki Gemmell. They were there to inform her that her mother Elayn had been found dead in her apartment. An apparent suicide. Did she know of her mother’s plans? Had she inadvertently contributed to her death in some way?

Blind-sided by shock and guilt, Nikki was left not only devastated but desperately searching for answers. Alarmed, too, that she was suddenly part of a police investigation.

A vibrant and independent woman, Elayn had been suffering from chronic pain after a failed foot operation and had subsequently become addicted to painkillers.

With four children and a busy career, Nikki had struggled to also deal with her mother’s increasing dependence.

“Too often in my life and in a lot of people my age, the older people are squeezed to the edge of our lives.” – Nikki Gemmell

Nikki penned a column, asking her readers if her mother had ‘euthanised’ herself as an act of despair or empowerment. The feedback was overwhelming. She had touched a nerve amongst her readers eager to share their own stories or the stories of loved ones struggling with impending death.

One of those who responded was euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke, who declared it an act of empowerment. She contacted Nitschke only to find out that Elayn had been a member of his organization Exit International for seven years, had been reading his Peaceful Pills Handbook.

Like a detective, Nikki began to piece together her mother’s secret life and retrace her descent into the frailty and desperation that precipitated this final act. Why did she do this? Who had she told of her plans, if not her family? How had she fed her opioid addiction?

Through the process, she began to see her mother as a person rather than just a parent, reconciling their often difficult and tempestuous relationship.

“Mum was the love of my life and the hate of my life. I was constantly running away from Mum’s world and the environment that I grew up in where I always felt different.” – Nikki Gemmell

Recognising that her mother had been forced to die a lonely death to protect her loved ones, Nikki dived down the rabbit hole of the euthanasia debate.

In the process, Nikki has been reconfigured not only as a person but as an advocate for change.

8pm Monday 20 March.


  1. I think you feel guilty because you were too busy to really hear/ listen to the distress your mum was going through. I too , should of / could have done more for my mother. Our family stories are different. I don’t think uthanasia is the answer ever. Excellent palliative care and families being aware of their responsibilities at this time is paramount. I live with quilt too .

    • I had the same sentiments. Nikki completely missed the point: it was/is not about her, but about her mother. She was too bizzzzzzzzzie to truly listen to her mother, even when she despairingly reached out to Nikki just one week before she took her own life. Lame excuse to say she had never heard of pain clinics – oh pleeease! Nikki could have been more proactive in helping her mother look for solutions such as the pain clinic. You are right Nikki- it was such a waste of a life too early. Clearly your mother approached Exit group because she was a burden/nuisance to you (who would listen to her and support her)- you made that abundantly clear in your story. And one wonders how much the Exit Doctor spoke with your mother about pain clinics & that she could actually have a chance to live a fulfilling life with adequate pain management. She was not terminal. Further, why didn’t her GP…

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