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Shortland Street star’s personal euthanasia battle

Jessica Joy reveals why she supported her gran's grave decision and what changed her mind about euthanasia.

“Intelligent” and “brave” are two words that spring to mind when Shortland Street actress Jessica Joy Wood thinks of her grandmother Irma.

It’s been 12 years since Irma passed away, but Jessica, who has recently returned to the TV2 soap as the troubled Julia Reynolds, has vivid memories of popping in to visit her during her breaks at drama school.

“She was one of my best friends,” Jessica tells. “Three or four times a week, we’d just sit for hours at a time and chat.”

With Jessica’s onscreen mother Norelle (played by Luanne Gordon) pleading with her onscreen sister Kylie (Kerry-Lee Dewing) for the right to end her life, Irma is very much on her mind.

The heart-wrenching storyline is particularly poignant for the 32-year-old because Irma made the same difficult decision when her body was deteriorating around her.

Irma felt she was losing her dignity and was also faced with going blind and deaf.

“Granny was terrified of becoming just this brain in a black box,” Jessica recalls. “She was very open and honest about wanting to end her life.”

Until now, Jessica’s only shared her grandmother’s story with friends and, more recently, her castmates.

With Shortland Street once again tackling the controversial subject of euthanasia, she feels it’s time to speak publicly about her support for legalising assisted suicide in New Zealand.

“The death of a loved one is a horrible thing to think about. For myself, I don’t know if I could perform voluntary euthanasia, but I believe it would be nice to have the option.”

On the TV2 soap, Norelle told Kylie she wanted to end her life.

Julia weighed in on her mother’s decision.

It’s not the first time the TV drama has featured euthanasia in its storylines, but Jessica knows she could face criticism for stating her views.

Regardless, the actress, who also works as a director and writer, hopes at least it will get people talking about the difficult subject.

Before her grandmother’s death, Jessica was staunchly against euthanasia, having witnessed, as a teenager, the devastation caused by suicide. But Irma, who had lost her husband John to cancer 10 years before her own health declined, had a different view.

“Granny would try to persuade me that it was more humane than letting someone peter out. But for me, euthanasia was nothing less than suicide and I would think, ‘How could she do that to us?’” Jessica reveals. “I selfishly saw only me losing my grandmother. I couldn’t see, that at 95 years old, she could make her own mind up about the end of her life.”

Then one day, when she was at drama school, Jessica got the call she had been dreading. Her father said Irma had passed away – and it was as a result of taking her own life.

But rather than feeling angry, Jessica was filled with relief that her grandmother was finally at peace. Looking back, she says the hardest thing was knowing Irma went through it alone.

Irma and John’s golden anniversary in 1992.

A loved wife, mother and grandmother.

“It would have been terrifying for her,” Jessica tells. “She wanted the ability to give permission for someone to assist her when she lost the capacity to end her own life. If that was legal, we would’ve had longer with her and we would have been able to hold her hand. It would have been much nicer for her.”

Instead, Irma’s house became a crime scene and Jessica’s family had to wait while police investigated her death.

Irma had left a letter pleading for her family to understand, as well as a note for her doctor so no one was left wondering what she had done. But despite all this, officers had to rule out that the 95-year-old had been murdered or assisted in her suicide.

“It was awful for Dad,” Jessica recalls. “He was questioned by police and we also had to go to the Coroner’s Court, where they ruled finally she had performed voluntary euthanasia.”

Irma’s efforts to protect her family are similar to the concerns of Jessica’s onscreen family as Norelle considered ending her own life.

It took Kylie lots of soul-searching to agree not to stand in her way, but so far, Julia is taken up the other side of the argument.

“I think it’s more interesting to see how Kylie, who always comes out on the right side of morals, is so conflicted about this. It will be interesting to see what the viewers think,” Jessica tells. “Julia stirs things up, her emotions are about herself most of the time.”

Words: Anastasia Hedge

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