Breaking down the taboos around terminal illness

A new book, “Going Gentle” by Dr Philip Graham, explores some of the key issues around a topic that all of us, at some point, have to face up to – and offers practical advice based on the experiences of those who have lost loved ones. Review by Tony Watts OBE

“Over recent years,” begins “Going Gentle”, “twenty-four of my good, long-standing friends have died…. It has been a hard, deeply upsetting time.”

I understand where he’s coming from, having had several very good friends pass away in the course of the last year – including college peers and running buddies of my own age. The intimations of mortality, to bend the line from Wordsworth, get ever closer as you age. As Philip explains, that level of loss is unsurprising considering many of his late friends were in their eighties.

Looking death in the eye – our own or a loved one’s – is never going to be easy, despite the fact that it is as natural a process as being born. But knowledge is power, and this excellently written (and never morbid) book takes us on a journey where he looks at his own brush with death and the impact that had upon him; dispassionately explores why we die (a good question, bearing in mind that not all species do); and then recounts some of the personal experiences of the friends and family of those who have lost loved ones.

He details the nature of palliative care, delves into squaring death with some people’s spiritual beliefs, dissects the anxieties that we naturally go through, and examines the journey through the health and care system that many of us will travel.

Helpfully, he also has some excellent advice on how we keep the proverbial Grim Reaper at bay for as long as possible – by taking sensible steps to extend our healthy life expectancy. And there’s a great must-do list on getting one’s affairs in order, as well as guidance on the financial assistance that may be available.

Equally helpful are the sections on maximising the quality of life of those living with terminal illness.

Philip’s professional background makes him particularly qualified to take us through these topics – he is a retired psychiatrist and, for many years, has had an interest in the end of life. He is a past Chair of Dignity in Dying, which campaigns for the right of mentally competent terminally ill people to end their lives. The experiences of some of those who contributed to this book are clear vindications that extending someone’s life can sometimes come at the cost of its quality.

The reference from which the book begins is the passionate poem by Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” in which the poet exhorts his dying father to rage against the dying of the light. Philip’s book takes a more nuanced approach because, while we can set ourselves to hold onto life (again, our own or our loved ones) for as long as we can, there comes a point when we have to let go.

“Going Gentle: a guide to a better terminal illness” by Philip Graham is available in Amazon at:

Image: Anne Nygard on Unsplash

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