My aunt died from cancer at the age of 37 on Monday November 19, in Morocco, surrounded by her five older siblings.
When I last saw Naziha in a Belgian hospital in September, she was lying on a bed, wearing pyjamas. Although she was trying to hide it, I immediately noticed her atrophied hand. There was also this booklet on euthanasia left on her bedside table by hospital staff. Next to the booklet were a small Quran book and a digital Quran player that she would sometimes ask to be turned on. And there she was, lying on her bed, with her faint voice repeating that she was tired both in French and in Arabic.
Naziha was split between the Moroccan culture she was born with and the European way of life she had adopted after moving to Brussels to study law in her early twenties. This split became more obvious in the last few months of her life, when she desperately tried to balance religion and her will for a dignified death.
In September, Naziha was diminished but still had most of her mental faculties and she was not suffering at all. However, she was bordering depression as she knew that the tumor growing in her brain would sooner or later start causing her great pains and eventually render her in a vegetative state – unless she decided to end her life before reaching that stage.
This opportunity was available to her in Belgium, whereby doctors can assist terminally ill patients to die. A lethal injection is given after long talks between the medical staff and both the patient and their family.
Preferring to die with dignity, Naziha told her three sisters that she wanted to get the injection. They accepted the decision but one of her brothers, who had shortened his pilgrimage to Mecca to come to Brussels, refused what he regarded as a ‘sinful solution’.
Naziha’s doctor, a Muslim, offered an alternative solution accepted by Muslim religious leaders: Naziha could be put in a coma to avoid her suffering until she died naturally. But my uncle refused because she was not suffering physically – yet. He also feared that she would not be conscious to receive her last blessing.
When I visited Naziha in September, I remember my uncle turning on the digital Quran player and saying to me “you see, this is euthanasia for us, there is no need for an injection”. He was implying that God was the only person able to decide when to take you away, and that praying was the only way to ease Naziha’s mental pains.
I left Brussels knowing that I would never see Naziha again. I thought she would sign the euthanasia paper or request to be put in coma. In spite of this, I did not know she would die nearly three months later.
Shortly after my visit, my uncle brought Naziha to Morocco where she could not ask for euthanasia, as the country is predominantly Muslim. My uncle also stopped contacting his three other “miscreant” sisters who had considered euthanasia as a solution.
In my uncle’s apartment, Naziha was far away from the euthanasia booklet. However, the Quran prayers that must have been playing in the house every single day did not make it easier for her to die.
Once a very elegant woman who would not go out without make-up, Naziha was now completely dependent on my uncle and his wife to help her go to the bathroom and to eat. After a couple of weeks, she was drip fed and had to wear nappies. It’s hard to know if she was still conscious of what was happening to her. I am deeply hoping she was not.
Indeed, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago, one of Naziha’s main fears was to look sick. Being a very attractive woman in her early-thirties, she liked to be in control of her appearance and her life. Although she could not control her cancer, she did her best to hide it. She had actually planned breast reconstruction even before the removal of breasts was done and she hid her bald head under wigs and hats. It was hard to imagine that, behind the make-up and the nice outfit, there was a disease wearing my aunt down. In a way, she had managed to tame her disease.
When the cancer started reaching her spine, one of her legs and a hand started to be subject to paralysis but Naziha refused to use a crutch and was determined to keep driving her car as long as she could – even if it meant driving bare-footed in order to be able to feel the pedals.
She could not do anything to hide her swollen body (because of the cortisone she was taking), which was a devastating thing for her. Although she was still trying to enjoy her life and travel, the grim reality was mirrored when a customs officer was unable to identify her on her passport picture. When I saw Naziha last June, I was only able to recognise this lame and swollen person because her dog was next to her.
When I went to Belgium in September, Naziha first refused my visit because she did not want to appear weak; she wanted people to remember her as the elegant woman she had always been.
To her, the solution was euthanasia. She had the chance to be living in a country allowing this practice. But unfortunately, she had to wait until death was ready to take her. She had to wait and see herself degrading. And when she died, Naziha was not more than a 37-year-old infant.