When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone

by J-Mirabelli

“In six weeks’ time, I will be dead, I will be cremated, but it is an extraordinary experience.” This is how Philip Gould begins his film When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone, a soul-searching chronicle of thoughts and emotions during his last two weeks of life.

He shares his thoughts and insights as he confronts his impending death from oesophageal cancer. When he stands on his grave in London, England’s Highgate Cemetery, among all the greenery, his comfort in knowing that this is the ground that will embrace him forever, is inspiring.

Gould 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. Gould says that he knows he cannot beat death; in fact, 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.

The longtime British Labour Party strategist became known for using polls and focus groups to help bring the Labour Party that was known as “the loony left” in the 1980s, to power in a landslide win in 1997, and then to win two more elections. With the help of Gould’s strategizing, Tony Blair and later Gordon Brown kept the modernized Labour Party in power until 2010.

Gould, despite the pain and frailty of his final weeks, which he calls the “Death Zone”, tries to do all he can to meet his children’s needs; he prepares them for life without him, just as he prepares himself for death. The book version of When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone is for them, and they complete it, along with Gould’s wife, Gail Rebuck, with personal responses to what he has written.

One of the interesting things about the book is that although Gould’s political colleagues, and friends Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, are in the book, there is a narrowing to the people that matter most to him, to his daughters Georgia and Grace, and his wife, Gail. It was the strength of their relationship that kept him going through the worst of the operations and chemotherapy.

Philip Gould was not a religious man, but he was a very spiritual man. He was open to religious meanings and discussions, without ever fully adopting a faith, and as a result, he strongly believed in having “a good death”.

His daughter Georgia states, “He certainly came to believe it was an important time, if not the most important time. We had to sit and have meetings about his funeral and all that. And it worked in that the one thing I don’t have is any regrets. There is nothing I wish I had said.”

“… he would say, ‘I will always be with you’, but he meant in our thoughts and memories. He used to say he thought he was a better dad when he was ill, but the fact is he was always a brilliant dad.”

Read more:

We can’t all choose the way we die or how to say goodbye | The Observer

Philip Gould: a good life and death | The Observer

Philip Gould | The Economist

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