Assisted dying: Gay man helped his mother end her life in Switzerland after beautiful, long goodbye

Tom's mum Susan made the decision to go to Dignitas in Switzerland.

In April 2016, Tom Beagley-Spicer travelled with his mother to Dignitas, the assisted dying centre in Switzerland.

It was a journey he’d hoped he would never have to embark upon – but it wasn’t unexpected. In 1982, at the age of just 22, Tom’s mum Susan had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a condition that causes damage to the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, leaving people with a number of symptoms including difficulty walking and poor vision.

When Tom talks about his mother, he remembers her as a fun and outgoing woman whose life was irrevocably changed by her diagnosis. She retreated into herself, putting up a hard exterior as a means of protection. 

It wasn’t until she was also diagnosed with cancer in 2014 that she got a new lease on life and started to tear down the barriers she had erected. 

“She was a complex character with such a softness about her,” Tom recalls. “She was so soft and so kind but to the outside world, and even to me, her son, she had the barriers up that meant that she didn’t let people in. 

Tom with his mum Susan.
Tom with his mum Susan. (Supplied)

“Her whole life had revolved around this illness and I think as it got worse – because by the end she was in a wheelchair, half blind, [her] arms weren’t working particularly well – I saw a full spectrum, a full rainbow of mother.” 

You may like to watch

In the lead up to Christmas 2015, Tom’s mum invited the family around for lunch. It was there that she announced she had had enough. 

“We were like: ‘Cool, stop eating then, fine! You don’t have to keep eating,’” Tom laughs.

“What we didn’t realise until we broke into that conversation was that she was ready to go down the route that she went down. It was at that point that she said: ‘If we’re going to do it let’s make the best of it.’”

Together, Tom and his mum decided that the final months of her life would be among her best – that they would spend their spare time together going to musicals and exploring London’s queer culture. 

“She knew how much my life revolved around socialising in London – gay bars, musicals, shows, all of that – and she said: ‘I want to be part of it.'”

One afternoon, they popped into London’s G-A-Y after a “boozy lunch” – and Susan instantly became a star. 

Tom with his mum Susan.
Tom took his mum to gay bars and musicals. (Supplied)

“She was lapping it up,” Tom laughs. “She was still a very beautiful lady, always dressed up. Us gays loved her in there. They were like: ‘Can we help you? Can we get you a drink?’

“Normally she’d be moaning about the noise of the music or that it’s too dark, too light, but she was living it. I’ve got a picture somewhere – she’s just smiling and happy.”

From January to April 2016, Tom and his mum spent two days a week in London taking it all in. Looking back, Tom thinks it was a two-pronged effort. He believes she wanted to enjoy the final months of her life, but she also wanted to involve herself in his life.

“She left so many smiling memories in all of these bars and theatres and restaurants in an area that I spent all of my bloody life, and she’s left me with some incredible memories. Now when I go to Rupert Street or G-A-Y, it’s not just a night out – I’ve been there with my mum. 

“It’s hard because I’m forever making new memories and she’s not part of them, but I now get to go to places that she was a part of. It means a hell of a lot to me, and I know how much it meant to her.”

The journey to Dignitas was ‘very lonely’

It was a special time for Tom and his mother, but of course, a deep sadness underlined it all.

Susan’s decision to end her life on her own terms didn’t come as a surprise to Tom – he recalls looking at the Dignitas website when he was as young as 13, knowing that she could possibly go down that route one day – but that didn’t ease the pain he felt as the months rolled by.

Susan on one of their trips to London.
Susan on the London Eye. (Supplied)

“The hardest bit came as the journey progressed and we started pulling everything together,” he says.

“We called it the party – I was the party planner with her, creating an event that she wasn’t going to come home from. We were creating something that in day-to-day life is really sad and very lonely and very scary.” 

As they made lasting memories together, it started to feel like “the longest goodbye”.

Tom explains: “You spend your whole time in turmoil. I’d get home after spending the day doing something with mum and my husband would say, ‘How was it?’ I’d go, ‘Oh, that was an amazing day, mum looked so happy’, but it was all bulldozed by [knowing], that it was another day closer to mum going.” 

Finally, in April, Tom, his husband and his mother travelled to Switzerland.

“I can honestly say the whole trip in Switzerland was wonderful. The compassion, the openness, the support from the team in Dignitas, the hotel staff, the doctor that came to see us, they were all just wonderful,” Tom reveals. 

After spending a final, happy few days together, Susan took the medication that had been prescribed to bring her life to a close. Tom sat with her as she died, telling her that he loved her.

Susan's gravestone
Susan’s gravestone. (Supplied)

Tom should have had a chance to grieve, but he was immediately besieged by fear. In the UK, it’s a criminal offence to help somebody end their life. 

“Half an hour later you’re not grieving – you’re scared of what the police are going to say. Am I going to be met at the airport, am I going to have a phone call from the police? The fear started straightaway.”

That’s why he’s now dedicating his time to pushing for new UK laws that would allow people to die on their own terms – and on home soil.

“I want to see our government support those [who] are at a terminal prognosis in their life, to ensure they get the dignity – they get the choices and the dignity – to do what they need to do,” he says, pointing to research from charity Dignity in Dying which shows there’s broad public support for change.

“We’ve got a government that is scared to rock the boat. This isn’t rocking the boat, it’s giving people choice, dignity and the closure that they deserve and need.”

Today, Tom is still grieving for his mother, but he does what he can to keep her memory alive.

“When we were in London, she saw drag queens for the first time and she said: ‘You should do that – you’d look great.’ I’ve got very feminine legs, and I said, maybe I would one day. 

“Last year, I did it for the first time and it’s something that I’m going to progress with. It’s just another way for me to keep mum’s memory alive.”