AA Gill’s deathbed request: ‘the full truth’
Three weeks after revealing his diagnosis, the Sunday Times journalist has died. He leaves behind a brutally honest article about his experience of cancer. Should we all be more open about death?
AA Gill sits in hospital, hours after his cancer diagnosis, awaiting test results. ‘How much do you want to know?’, asks his doctor. ‘Everything, and the truth,’ he replies.
The truth was not pretty. One of the country’s best journalists had, in his words, ‘the full English’ of cancer. He announced his illness in a restaurant review three weeks ago. ‘I wasn’t going to mention it,’ he confessed, ‘the way you don’t.’ But he did. In his final article, he described his chemotherapy in grim detail: the injections, the vomit, the ‘hideous but comfortable chair’, the ‘10 out of 10’ pain. Then, on Saturday, he died.
Gill’s fame ensured headlines. But the media took a special interest in one aspect of his illness. Although he could afford private care, the writer chose to be treated by the NHS. He wanted its ‘human connection’. When he told one nurse that his cancer was terminal, she swore and appeared to cry. ‘You don’t get that with private healthcare,’ he wrote approvingly.
The problem with death, Gill suggested, is that ‘we’re not looking’. Compared to 150 years ago, few people see their loved ones die. End-of-life care and funerals are now taken care of by professionals. Doctors, especially private ones, often sugarcoat ‘the truth’ to dying patients. In our society, death has become a taboo.
Statistics bear this out. According to the group Dying Matters, 72% of the public believe that British people are uncomfortable discussing death.
The healthcare world knows this: over the past decades, it has gradually encouraged people to speak out on how they would like to die. ‘Do not resuscitate’ orders are now common in many countries, and euthanasia is spreading.
Others are also attempting to remove the subject’s stigma. Blogs by the terminally ill draw millions of readers. ‘Death cafés’, informal meetings where people discuss mortality, are a global trend. In South Korea, living people are made to ‘practise’ their own funeral in order to put them off suicide.
Many societies are slowly opening up the debate on death. Is this for the best?
We must tackle death head on, say some. Talking about it enables us to clear up legal issues: about our will, our medical preferences, and so on. This saves money and stress. More importantly, an open discussion makes us less afraid of death, and gives meaning to life. Gill is an example to us all.
Discussion can do good, reply others. But no matter how much we talk, death will remain a very emotive subject for some. We should be careful not to offend anyone by forcing the subject on them; sugarcoating can be necessary. Gill may take a journalist’s interest in his nurse’s blunt reaction, but most people would take offence.
- If you could, would you live forever?
- Do celebrities have a duty to raise awareness of difficult issues?
- Write a letter explaining what you would like to happen to your body after you die.
- Watch the BBC’s interview with AA Gill in Become An Expert. What do you think makes him a good writer? List five characteristics that stand out.
Some People Say...
“A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”Mark Twain
What do you think?
Q & A
- Will I actually die?
- We know of only one species capable of immortality: the jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii. Humans can’t live forever, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying. What was once pure sci-fi is edging toward reality, as scientists experiment with cryonics (body-freezing) and genetic manipulation (see The Day’s article in Become An Expert). But for now, it’s safe to assume that you will die.
- I believe in life after death.
- You’re not alone. In a recent survey, 35% of men and 61% of women in the UK said that there was ‘definitely or probably’ an afterlife. Although the concept of life after death is central to most religions, belief in it is rising while religious faith is falling. This surprising fact is discussed by leading thinkers in The Daily Mail’s article in Become An Expert.
- Dying Matters
- An organisation of 32,000 medical and healthcare professionals in Britain. Its mission is ‘to promote public awareness of dying, death and bereavement’.
- ‘Do not resuscitate’ orders
- In many countries, including Britain, people can legally order doctors not to attempt to revive them if their heart or breathing stops.
- The painless killing of someone with an unbearable and incurable condition, on their request. Euthanasia is legal in a handful of countries, not including Britain.
- Anna Swabey’s Inside My Head, for example. Swabey died in September, one day before her wedding.
- Death cafés
- The concept was launched in Switzerland by a sociologist. It has since spread to 40 countries. See Become An Expert.
- South Korea has the second-highest suicide rate in the world: 29.1 people per 100,000 in 2012, according to the World Health Organization.
- Foremost food critic
- Gill had served as The Sunday Times’s food and television critic since the 1990s. He was known for his rich language and provocative style: he once called the Welsh ‘dark, ugly little trolls’.