back to top

Here's Why This Winnipeg Woman Chose To End Her Life By Not Taking Insulin

"I should be able to kill myself if I want to," Jess Bowness told her doctors.

Posted on

A Winnipeg woman's obituary is asking people not to send flowers, but to instead pressure politicians to pass right-to-die legislation.


Jess Bowness died March 3 at age 89.

A month earlier, she had been rushed to the hospital when her lungs filled with fluid. She had shortness of breath, low energy, and she was in pain. At the hospital, the doctors drained the fluid, but there was worse news to come: Bowness was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, which is considered incurable.

"She was 89. Diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, quadruple bypass surgery, neuropathy, memory loss and the very recent discovery of undiagnosed stage four breast cancer... she'd had enough," reads Bownesss's obituary published in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Bowness wanted to end her life, but with doctor-assisted suicide not yet legal in Canada, she decided she would stop taking her insulin — a slow and scary solution.

"Her death took longer than it needed to; there was more discomfort and distress than needed to be," the obituary said.

Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a ban on doctor-assisted suicide and gave the federal government a year to pass legislation legalizing it.


A special parliamentary committee recently issued a report laying the groundwork for the new laws that will legalize assisted death for people with incurable illnesses. But it's not clear when the final legislation will pass.

The federal government has already asked for one extension.

Gordon Bowness, Jess' son, said she complained to her doctor about how "the politicians aren't doing their job" quickly enough to help people like her. "I should be able to kill myself if I want to," she said.


"Nothing was going to improve her quality of life at this point," Gordon Bowness told BuzzFeed Canada. "At one point she realized she wasn't getting out of that acute care ward, and that's when she made the decision."

Diabetics who refuse insulin become hyperglycemic, but it can take months or even years before it reaches critical levels, doctors told Bowness. It's often an opportunistic infection that is the ultimate cause of death, making it an imprecise and difficult suicide method.

He said that while it was hard for the family to hear of her decision to stop taking insulin, they also felt incredibly proud of her.

"She surprised me once more, after a lifetime of surprises. It just showed how powerful and strong she is."

Bowness's obituary, written by her four children, describes the incredible life she lived. She was born in Singapore in 1926, and grew up in a large family. While still a teenager, she worked as a nurse for three years during the Japanese occupation of the city in the Second World War.


"A ravishingly beautiful young woman, Jess made the most of the post-war years and, later, loved telling stories of her many suitors and glamorous exploits," says the obituary.

She started a family with her husband Michael and, in 1965, they all moved to Canada. Although life in suburban Winnipeg "never seemed quite the right fit" for her, she had a mischievous wit that drew people to her.

"Any time her younger child had to complete a school form that asked for his mother's occupation, she'd insist he write in 'lady of leisure'. When she was bored, she'd often answer the phone with, 'City morgue'," the obituary recounts.

Her son said she lived a full and happy life and did not reach her decision lightly. Her husband passed away in 1999, and she had "a number of years of pain and diminishment" leading up to her most recent diagnosis, he said.

Gordon Bowness said that other than the obituary, the family had intended to deal with its grief privately. But the story of her life and her more difficult final days has touched a nerve.


"It's amazing how many people are coming to us and being incredibly supportive," he said. "There's just so many people that we're meeting for whom this legislation is incredibly important."

Gordon Bowness said he's worried the legislative process will drag on, or that provinces will be slow in adapting to the changes.

"There was already some delay after the Supreme Court decision, which affected my mother," he said. "So further delay is not acceptable."

Ishmael N. Daro is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto. PGP fingerprint: 5A1D 9099 3497 DA4B

Contact Ishmael N. Daro at

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.