Nikki Gemmell on the devastating aftermath of her mother’s decision to end her own life.

Was my mother ever sure of her daughter's unconditional love for her? No, there was always too much complexity for the clearness of that. I'd remarked to girlfriends that when Elayn died there'd be a sense of relief mixed in with everything else. A catch of guilt as I said it, but it was the truth and the truth, spoken, always felt soldering and right. I told my girlfriends I'd be freed, finally, like a diver bulleting from the depths of pressured darkness into light. How wrong I was, how wrong. She's got me well and good.

Margaret Thatcher said in an interview that she had nothing to say to her mother after the age of 15. So cruelly true, for so many females. The girls with wilfulness blazing under their skin, impatient for their own lives and paths; wanting, needing to break away and contemptuous of their mothers' choices. Daughters too quickly dismissive and judgmental, with their mysterious, self-absorbed velocity.

Daughters who think of their mothers as the happiness stalkers, reining them in with tut and affront. Daughters so caught up in their own fresh worlds. Their mothers can only cling to the edges and the girls can resent even that. The clutter of maternal attention. The fury at attempts to nudge, persuade, shape. And then, and then, sometimes between them, the descent into the piracy of silence. From either side, from both sides. Which was Elayn and me. Oh yes, we knew that old friend - The Great Withholding - that crashed between us at times. And toppled us both.

Nikki with her mum Elayn.
Nikki with her mum Elayn.

Yet there was so much love over the years, without us even realising it. Without acknowledging it, nurturing it, or asking for it. And in Elayn's final year, the dynamic between us of frustration and fury, hauteur and head-butt softened, miraculously, into something else. Everything opened out like a stop-motion film of a shy flower finding light. We were both tired from decades of adult wariness and clash and let go, stepped back, let each other in. Who knew we could evolve to this? Yet we did. And it astounded us both. Like two old warriors who'd had enough. Who'd softened into a knowing, finally, after years of exhausting attack.

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Softened into a realisation that none of it, actually, was worth it.

"If I had my life over I never would have had kids," Elayn threw at me once. It was a phrase I carried throughout my adult life, particularly when I had children myself. Yet when Elayn and I were close, at our best, those resonant lines from the Psalms dropped over me like a benediction:

"The darkness is no darkness with thee." Close, it felt like I was suddenly bathed in a vernissage, a varnishing, and all the sullen textures of my daughterly being were combusting into light. I craved that. Never stopped being that little girl aching for a demonstrative love, to be dandled on a proverbial knee, trying to nudge my way in.

Nikki's wedding day.
Nikki's wedding day.

Elayn spoke of death with yearning, yet vivacity coursed so strongly under her skin.

All contradiction and inconsistency.

As Dorothy Parker said of Isadora Duncan: "There was never a place for her in the ranks of the terrible, slow army of the cautious. She ran ahead, where there were no paths." In the 1970s we had lift-off: she finally dared to be herself. Changed the spelling of her name - pedestrian Elaine to audacious Elayn - following a flirt with numerology. She embraced divorce when no one around her, in sleepy suburbanland, dared do it. Stepped into the world of topless bathing. Biorhythms. Male centrefolds in Cleo. Transcendental meditation and star signs. All were glorious liberations from the swamping of model-wifeliness she had been trapped in for decades. She did everything too well. T.S. Eliot said that most people are only a very little alive, and during that time Elayn felt like one of the few - the fortunate, spirit-brimmed few - who are the over-livers.

In the 70s, in her late 30s, Elayn found the courage to be magnificently, courageously detached from the world around her. It was the time of her Great Acceleration.

Yet she had come of age two decades earlier, an era when women were not expected to work. Married at 19, a mother at 24, her husband's property. Elayn belonged to the last generation of females to exist in that world. She chafed against it. Grew to loathe it.

She straddled three eras. A pre-feminist one as she remained buried in suburbia for two decades of marriage and motherhood; a feminist one of liberation and exhilaration involving, principally, the younger women around her; and then the post-feminist era that was her daughter's. It was Elayn's tragedy and bitterness to have been born when she was. She was too modern for her surroundings for much of her life. Possibly, also, in her death.

There will be many future Elayns.

Elayn's modelling portfolio.
Elayn's modelling portfolio.

A modern story for modern times.

Elayn Gemmell euthanised herself. I have difficulty saying the words "committed suicide". Because that bald and emotionally fraught word, "suicide", is not often thrown around among all the talk of dying with dignity, which implies rationality, forethought, calm. Yet "euthanised" doesn't feel right either. It has, too much, the whiff of the science lab to it, the face mask and nurse-administered needle. Suicide implies the unhinged and irrational, the fatally weakened; euthanasia, the clinical assistance of someone else.

Euthanasia is neither spontaneous nor sudden. The perpetrator has agency. Neither word feels rigidly correct.

Fact: Elayn euthanised herself, by herself, in an armchair in front of a blaring television. Just as summer was blazing into the year. Just as her family were straightening their backs after winter's clench and holding their faces to a soaring sky. Yet all of us were unaware of how deeply, fatally despairing this woman in our midst felt during this lovely, lightening time. All of us were unaware of the tightness of the noose around her life.

I was the last of Elayn's three children to see her, four days before her death. One of her sons had not seen her for several weeks, one for months. What exactly to call what happened here, with Elayn's vanishing from her children's lives?

Slipped away. Decided. Actioned. Slept into death. Assisted with suicide. Voluntarily assisted dying. Dying with dignity.

Elayn went underground. She did it her way, as she had done with so many things in her life. This death, above all, was so very her.

The builders found Elayn. They had been taking their time renovating her bathroom. Had left her without it for weeks. Telling her they had another job to go to then another and they'd be back soon, no worries; again and again. They'd left an elderly woman without a bathroom, shower or bath. A proud and beautiful female - always exquisitely dressed - was making do with just the laundry sink and a tiny spare toilet. She was sponging herself among the washing powders and fabric softeners between visiting my house to shower every few days. The exhaustion of it. The shredding of her dignity. The annoyance at having to carry a showering kit whenever she visited. Elayn had entered a new world of invisibility, of the little old lady whose wants could be brushed off. She had specialised throughout her life in image control but now, for the first time, she could not. The builders could never give her an end date to their renovations, they kept springing on her a fresh flit. The stress of uncertainty, and she hated it as much as myself. In some respects we were so alike.

An ad featuring Elayn.
An ad featuring Elayn.

Elayn had been in chronic pain.

She had had a foot operation 11 months earlier to eradicate a heel spur, among other things. She'd been plagued by foot problems in her later years and blamed a gruelling regime of ballet practice as a child and years of unsuitable footwear as an adult. Stilettos, wedges, corks, clogs, platforms, pumps, you name it, her shoe choice had charted the history of fashion at its most audacious. She revelled in the lift - physically and emotionally - they gave her. Until she could wear them no longer, for they had crippled her.

In her later years Elayn was retreating into a shell of pain. In her final weeks she was curved like a comma around a walking stick. Agony was hardening around her. Changing her. Consuming her. My mother booked herself in for a foot operation at one of Australia's most prestigious hospitals. If only I could travel back in time, before the surgery, and talk to Elayn, ask her, "Why are you doing this? Are you sure it's the best option? Is this really necessary at your age?" There's anger, now, at a medical system that allows elderly people to undergo such surgery - at enormous personal cost. Physically, mentally, financially.

When I visited Elayn in hospital, after her operation, the foot looked wrong. The toe next to the big one had been shortened. How was that meant to work? Surely it would affect her entire gait? For an older woman, was a dramatic toe-shortening really necessary?

Everything about my mother's foot looked painful. Out of whack. But what did I know? I was as ignorant as my mother. She was happy; I was happy. I didn't talk to the surgeon and should have. He was nowhere to be seen, post-op.

"He was so arrogant," Elayn told me, months later, when I begged her to go back for corrective surgery. "I couldn't bear to have anything to do with him again." Her call. The way of her generation. Accepting, stoic. The medical profession perhaps relies on it; that aversion to making a fuss. Perhaps we all do to some extent.

A fortnight before her death she'd been weeping over the phone to me, sobbing with the abandon of a child ... she dreaded going into care and losing control of her life, dreaded becoming a burden.

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The surgery had broken her. A fortnight before her death she'd been weeping over the phone to me, sobbing with the abandon of a child, telling me that she dreaded going into care and losing control of her life, dreaded becoming a burden. It had left Elayn with a spine thrown out of kilter, twisted around a walking stick like a withered crone from a fairy tale. And Elayn had never been that, never, truly "old", nor impaired. My mother was utterly, emotionally, naked. Stripped to her bare self by pain. Her voice was conveying that there was no way out, no clear path from this mess. I had never witnessed such vulnerability in her. The sobbing like a little girl, the fear. The mother had become the child. I wish the surgeon had known of it. How he had reduced her. I was furious. And helpless.

"It'll be okay," I tried to soothe, believing that there must be some upward trajectory out of this pain, into the light, Mum just had to wait. I was ignorant back then of what pain does; that it sometimes cannot be managed. Because with chronic pain there is often no sure path to recovery, no map away from it. And pain's diminishing is often only a temporary fix. I didn't bother to find out any of this when my mother was alive. Elayn knew. In hindsight, I was shamefully naive.

Nikki Gemmell says her mother was ahead of her time, straddling three eras - pre-feminism, feminism and post-feminism, even changing her name from Elaine to Elayn.
Nikki Gemmell says her mother was ahead of her time, straddling three eras - pre-feminism, feminism and post-feminism, even changing her name from Elaine to Elayn.

Do I support euthanasia?

At the fraught beginning of this journey, no. I was drowning in moral uncertainty, shock, anger. At all of it, the entire movement, for whisking my mother from me; too easily and too silently. It had stolen her from us. But now, a softening. Because of the lonely journey Elayn ultimately embarked upon. It shouldn't have been like that. If we do not reconsider our euthanasia laws we are condemning the person who wants to die to a hideously bleak and lonely death. For, if they carefully research the legal and emotional situation, as Elayn did, they will come to the conclusion that the least messy way to enact death is to go it alone. To protect their family. There has to be a better way. Governments have to enable it, or there will be too many future Elayns.

Katherine Mansfield wrote of her mother, in her journals: "She lived every moment of life more fully and completely than anyone I've ever known - and her gaiety wasn't any less real for being high courage - courage to meet anything with." Elayn demonstrated high courage repeatedly with her audacious choices. From her teens onwards she was restless with the path laid out for her by others. She needed transformation, escape, and acted on it. From the desert of her childhood. The country town of her teenage years. The suburban trap of her married world. And eventually, finally, from life.

Gratitude, now, for the high courage Elayn taught both my daughter and myself. "You cannot find peace by avoiding life," Virginia Woolf wrote. And so I dive back into it because it can be avoided no longer.

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans: 0800 726 666

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
Edited extract from After, by Nikki Gemmell (HarperCollins, $35). Available Monday.