The Week in Radio: A grief encounter that's not all doom and gloom


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The Independent Culture

Death weighed heavily on the radio this week. Well, why wouldn't it? It's January, it's cold out, the boiler's packed up, train fares have rocketed, pensions are being slashed, the Coalition's still in charge and next Monday is, we're told, the most depressing day of the year. Life bloody sucks. So, yes, now is an ideal time to reflect on death. What else, after all, is there to look forward to?

Trouble is, people can be squeamish about the subject. "Passed away" and "gone on" are among the euphemisms for the act of dying. These phrases, always uttered sympathetically, drove me mad after my father died. "Passed away?" I wanted to say. "It's much worse than that. He's dead, you know."

On Radio 4's Word of Mouth, Michael Rosen, the writer and former Children's Laureate, investigated the language of death and grief and found it similarly wanting. He visited a bereavement charity to find out how workers help young children who have lost a parent, explaining the concept of death through music, drawing and books. Their approach was no-nonsense but also sensitive and smart. Never tell a child that their parent, sibling or even pet guinea pig died in their sleep, or they will spend the rest of their childhood terrified to close their eyes.

Rosen also visited the Death Café in Hackney, east London, where people meet to talk frankly about death and dying, away from the grim environments of hospitals, hospices and funeral homes. "The idea is to remove the awkwardness from the discussion," said one attendee. Thus, in warm, comfortable surroundings, and over tea and cake, patrons regularly talk about funerals, last words, assorted versions of the afterlife and terminal illness without causing people to stare uncomfortably at their shoes. It all sounded peculiarly jolly.

The writer Will Self wasn't mincing his words on Radio 4's A Point of View in which he reflected not just on death itself but the desire to be dead.

"This may seem shocking to you," he began, "but I am expecting to kill myself." He didn't mean there and then, on air, though that of course would make for some startling radio. No, his aim was to "nudge society in the direction of considering suicide acceptable when – and this is the important point – the alternative is a slow painful death from a terminal illness."

The problem for Self, and for all of us, is that we are living longer, and our deaths are becoming commensurately drawn out. In days of yore, sepsis, infectious diseases or childbirth did for a lot of us. Now, thanks to advances in medical science, we can reasonably expect to live longer than the allotted span of "threescore and ten", long enough in fact for us to spend our final years consuming liquidised food and gaping at the determinedly cheerful wallpaper of specialist care homes.

All of which made Self's vision of death seem not shocking but sensible. As he pointed out, there is a lot of talk of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's having reached epidemic proportions. In fact, the epidemic is old age.

He went on to reflect on how our secular age means we view suicide more forgivingly, though few consider it a viable option, and on the "creeping normalcy" of the existence of the terminally ill. Self was unusually sensitive in his language, though he remained unapologetic for his belief that suicide could be a solution to our suffering, and not once did he use the phrase "passed away". Listening to him, I began to have visions of him at my bedside near the point of expiration, a ministering angel with an unusually long face, a slow, sombre voice and an enormous bag of hard drugs to send me on my way.