We can't all choose the way we die or how to say goodbye | Rachel Cooke

Philip Gould's deeply moving video suggests that we can take control of death, but is that always possible?

I received an email recently from PR agency Freud Communications. The email urged me to watch on YouTube a short film about the Labour peer and strategist Philip Gould, who died of esophageal cancer in November 2011. The film, When I Die, was made in the last fortnight of Gould's life.

"Philip was committed to sharing his experiences through one final campaign," said the email. "He showed that for the terminally ill and those closest to them, there can be moments of joy, resolution and inspiration in those final weeks just as intense as those of fear, discomfort and sadness."

The writer of the email then encouraged me, if I felt able, to share the film with others via social media. There was even a hashtag for me to use, should I feel like posting something on Twitter.

Well, I wandered about my office a bit, looking at the towering cairn of books I need to read, the notes I must type up, the newspapers I should recycle. Naturally, I wanted to watch the film. I was curious; people would soon be talking about it. But I felt indignant, too. The synthetic hullabaloo. The bizarre proposition that even death is now some kind of a lifestyle choice.

It was the fact that it seemed not to have occurred to the writer of the email that I would have my own experiences of terminal illness and that these might not match up to all the positivity his missive strained to radiate. Not for the first time, I found myself despising the insinuation – so persistent, this, in our secular, self-help world – that those who do not "battle" cancer, fighting it with the sword of attitude and the shield of green tea, are somehow failing to do their duty. I loathed the presumption and the bossiness. Looking down, I saw that I had balled my hands into fists.

You probably know what's coming next. I watched the film and it made me cry. Impossible not to, though I should add that its no messing forthrightness ("In six weeks' time, I will be dead, I will be cremated, I will face huge fear," says Gould as it begins), combined with its brevity (eight minutes 51 seconds), means that you skip completely the lump-in-the-throat stage; your tears, when they arrive, fall suddenly, like a child's.

Gould, warm and wise and clear, has a valedictory nobility I've only ever found before in a fine novel or a great portrait. How the jauntiness of his brightly striped scarf pierces the heart! When he stands on his grave in London's Highgate cemetery, among all that dripping green, his comfort in knowing that this is the ground that will embrace him for eternity is almost tangible. I half expected him to bend down and pat the grass, the way a person, tender and proprietorial, might pat a blanket when they have finished making a bed.

The film hopes, I think, to help us to talk about death and if it succeeds, this can only be a good thing. Once, we were so good at grief. There was a pattern to it. We knew what to do because our ancestors, whose experience was bitter, had taught us. When I turned 40, my mother gave me – this was at my request; she's not a total weirdo – a Victorian mourning locket, made of jet. It's a lovely object, one of those things that feels good in the palm of the hand. But it also strikes me every time I look at it that a century ago, it was an essential element in the long but signposted recovery programme of some poor widow.

And now? Now, for all that we mawkishly spray the bicycles of dead cyclists white and chain them to lamp posts, for all that we heap cellophane-wrapped flowers in remembrance of murder victims and lost celebrities alike, we have never been worse at mourning. Don't talk to me about Facebook pages. The designated space in which we used to grieve has closed right over our heads and the rituals have all but gone – and with them a means of connection, of moving beyond embarrassment and fear. Lose someone and you may feel as though you have the plague, so desperate are people to avoid a conversation about it (and you are longing to talk). Perhaps they think it's contagious.

On the other hand, you can't gloss death; you can't make it nice. It's shitty. And here's where I must part company with the film – though its crystalline power is such that it took me a few hours to work this out. It's not possible, really, to choose, as Gould talks about choosing, the kind of death you want.

"I know death hath 10,000 several doors/ For men to take their exits," writes John Webster in The Duchess of Malfi. Speed, suddenness, the level of pain involved – these are all variables. Some people, even people with cancer, decline so quickly that there is no time even for them to look at the blossom and grasp, as Dennis Potter did, that this is the blossomiest blossom they will ever see. They are already far beyond blossom.

In the film, Gould says that he knows he cannot beat death; indeed, his acceptance of its approach is at the root of his epiphany. But he also believes that death cannot beat him, not if he looks it in the eye. Does this mean he believed in God? Perhaps it does. If so, he was lucky. I envy that. I believe that death will beat me in the end: later rather than sooner, I hope, though you never know. Will I be good at dying? I very much doubt it, though why we should have to be good at that as well everything else, I really don't know.

Has When I Die made me think about my approach to it? No. Death isn't, you see, a possibility for any of us, or at least not until someone in a white coat places that particular one-way ticket in the palm of our hands. This is how we survive. Even when you have watched someone die, as I have, it is impossible to connect their experience, on the most visceral level, to your own future. You might hope for better – for more morphine or more of a chance to say goodbye. But this is an intellectual exercise. You'd be terrified halfway out of your wits if it was anything more.

As I write, many thousands of people have already watched When I Die and some of them, I see, have described it as inspiring. I understand why, but this is not really the right word. What they mean is galvanising. The film stirs up in those who see it a useful restlessness. There are things we should try and do while we still have the time. Far better to worry about dying after you have done them than before.


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Baby boomers set about the art of dying well | Gaby Hinsliff

Gaby Hinsliff: The way Steve Jobs and Philip Gould approached death offers a standard for their generation

Gaby Hinsliff

13, Nov, 2011 @12:06 AM

Article image
Luke and Sophie Perry: where’s the shame in grieving your own way? | Rebecca Nicholson
It’s bad enough trying to cope with the death of a parent without finding yourself judged by strangers on social media

Rebecca Nicholson

16, Mar, 2019 @3:30 PM

Article image
‘By remembering my dead brother, I released the grief’ | Richard Beard
A sudden death, a stricken family. Then four decades of silence. Now a new memoir is breathing life into loss

Richard Beard

15, Apr, 2017 @11:05 PM

Article image
The Observer view on a dignified end to life | Observer editorial
Still more must to be done to make sure that a dying person’s final days are made as peaceful as possible

Observer editorial

15, Aug, 2015 @11:03 PM

Article image
Tomb tourism is an old hobby in brighter clothes | Barbara Ellen
Hanging out in cemeteries has always appealed to those with a taste for the macabre

Barbara Ellen

27, May, 2017 @11:05 PM

Article image
Isn’t it time to be grown up and stop saying we ‘pass away’? We die, end of story | Kevin McKenna
The Co-Op’s new cremation service should making us focus on the truth of dying

Kevin McKenna

03, Jun, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Unlike Ann Clwyd's husband, my mother received tender care from the NHS as she lay dying | Alex Clark

Alex Clark: We all deserve to end our days peacefully and be treated with compassion

Alex Clark

09, Dec, 2012 @12:04 AM

Article image
Notebook: a judge, Lord Byron and a grave injustice | Tim Adams
In the first of a new series, our writer reflects on the cruelty of refusing a husband permission to have a personal message engraved on his wife’s headstone

Tim Adams

19, Jan, 2020 @8:15 AM

Article image
Even Ted Hughes has fallen to the sickly cult of the twee | Martha Gill
From the Queen to Robin Williams, sentimental images abound to help us through grief and avoid staring death in the face

Martha Gill

09, Oct, 2022 @5:30 AM

Article image
Lest we forget: our NHS crisis is the deadly legacy of George Osborne’s austerity | Will Hutton
Excess deaths are the highest in 70 years. Everyone outside the Conservative party knows the cause – 13 years of underinvestment

Will Hutton

15, Jan, 2023 @8:30 AM