By Chris Haring
Rachel Stirling shares the story of her mother, a British actor who expressed her desire for Death with Dignity in recordings made from her hospital bed.
For stage and screen performers, being at the mercy of writers and directors is an inherent part of the job description. However, like all of us, their right to be the sole authors of their real-life final scene should be downright sacred.
Dame Diana Rigg’s death in 2020 marked the loss of a well-regarded actor, also stirring reflections on the power of autonomy. In an emotional op-ed featured in The Guardian, Rachael Stirling, whose career path followed in her mother’s footsteps, described how the inaccessibility of Death with Dignity as an end-of-life option resulted in unbearable suffering, eventually inspiring Stirling to begin advocating for the healthcare option herself.
Hypothetical support for aid in dying becomes personal
Rigg, a British actor known for multiple roles, had been battling cancer privately for several months before her death. Her daughter said the Game of Thrones star had previously expressed her support for the principles behind medical aid in dying, albeit in the familiar fashion that many people talk hypothetically about their inevitable deaths when the actual prospects of which seem distant in the future.
However, when her mother’s diagnosis became terminal with less than six months left to live, Stirling says Rigg made an interesting request from her hospital bed: She wanted to record her thoughts on physician-assisted dying.
Putting her words to tape was not a novel notion to Rigg: Stirling said her mother’s initial idea was “to record her memories of her first years with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.” But when Rigg’s prognosis became terminal, her desired topic shifted.
Rigg’s words live on through her daughter’s right-to-die advocacy
Ultimately, Stirling says it took three years after her mother’s death for her to be able to listen to the tapes, lamenting that she did not join the aid-in-dying movement in England until after a 2022 bill failed in its parliament. However, she says she hopes the late Avengers star’s words might have some effect, even posthumously.
In the tapes, Rigg – despite “the fury she felt at her own impotence,” Stirling wrote – described her position with humor and grace just two months from her death. “It’s high time there was some movement in the law to give choice to people in my position,” she said. “This means giving human beings true agency over their own bodies at the end of life. This means giving human beings political autonomy over their own death.”
Read the full article below:
‘It’s gone on too long. Push me over the edge’: Diana Rigg’s dying wishes in the grip of cancer’
By: Rachael Stirling
Published: December 9, 2023
I will never forget the look in my mother’s eyes that day near the end; the “north face of the Eiger”, as my family christened it. You have seen it in Game of Thrones, that look. As the Queen of Thorns, she used it to great effect. Fixing me with it for the first time in these last months, she said: “Rachie, it’s gone on too long – push me over the edge.”
She had by then been on end-of-life drugs for four days. I felt sick. I knew what she was asking me to do. I had made a promise when I was quite young, that I would one day put a pillow over my mother’s face if she ever asked me to. It was a joke for years. Until now. And I couldn’t do it. It was the one and only time she showed anger or bad temper in any of her suffering. She died the next day.
End of life is not for wimps. When Ma was very weak and the nurse came to insert her catheter, I sat listening from my bedroom next door. My mother still wanted dignity and privacy when she could get it. It was only afterwards that I realised the nurse had inserted it without offering anaesthetic cream or any local pain relief, but my mother was too tired to protest. I was furious. Unnecessary pain was the thing I’d promised I would protect her from. Unnecessary suffering. It was a promise that I could not keep.
Quite apart from the lack of bowel control, by the end her dehydration was such that her mouth was dry and cracked and horribly ulcerated. We dabbed it constantly with gel on a sponge atop a lollipop stick, but still she suffered. By the time the doctor said she could have the syringe driver to comfort her and to help her toward death, she had suffered as much as I have known any human to suffer. She was terribly weak and woefully thin. By the end it hurt her to even smile, let alone laugh. “I think I’ve rather gone off God,” she said slowly and painfully, the day before she died. “I think he’s fucking mean.”
I had known of my mother’s views on assisted dying for years. In her last few months she became increasingly adamant that the law should be changed, and so we recorded her statements on assisted dying to be released after her death.
The statement comes from two conversations we had in hospital when she first discovered she had six months left to live. Recording was her idea. While undergoing radiotherapy, still hoping the cancer was curable, she had wanted to record her memories of her first years with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, before she became famous. My husband Guy had bought, at her request, a cassette tape recorder that she could operate on her own, but by the time it arrived her prognosis had changed and the cancer was found everywhere. Six months they said, but considerably less without further treatment, which she was refusing. Assisted dying was the subject she now wanted to record herself talking about; the fury she felt at her own impotence in the face of a terminal diagnosis.
It has taken three years for me to feel able to listen to the tapes we made. I have come to Brighton to transcribe them and to write this piece about the circumstances surrounding the recordings. I have splashed out on a room with a balcony overlooking the sea. The staff kindly moved a battered old card table into the space in front of the window so I can write down her words in long hand, which feels more suitable than typing. I light a candle, put the small tube of her ashes I have brought with me on to the table, pour a glass of her preferred prosecco, toast the raucous hen party making a right cacophony in the road below, and press play.
My mother’s dulcet tones come through loud and clear. She is two months away from death but still strong, with lungs that filled theatres before actors were ubiquitously mic’d. She is still raging, still as gloriously articulate as she always was.
“I’ve always spoken out,” she says. “I spoke out when I was very young doing The Avengers and learned I was earning less than the cameraman. I received universal opprobrium. I was called ‘money grabbing’. I spoke for peace in Vietnam, in Northern Ireland. I marched for peace in Iraq. I stood up for what is right. I speak my mind. If I see something is unfair, I’ll do my best to address it. I think this is unfair.
“I have cancer and it is everywhere, and I have been given six months to live,” she says. “Yet again we found ourselves in the bathroom this morning, my beloved daughter and I, half-laughing and half-crying, showering off together, and it was loving, and it was kind, but it shouldn’t happen.
“And if I could have beamed myself off this mortal coil at that moment, you bet I would’ve done it there and then.”
She adds that nobody talks about “how awful, how truly awful the details of this condition are, and the ignominy that is attached to it. Well, it’s high time they did. And it’s high time there was some movement in the law to give choice to people in my position. This means giving human beings true agency over their own bodies at the end of life. This means giving human beings political autonomy over their own death.”
Hearing her I feel a sudden anguish, as if she’d died only yesterday. It is so sneaky, grief. It bites you on the ass just when you think you’ve grown out of it. I have deliberately absented myself from my family so I can do this work without muting the side effects. I listen again and I keen and sob a bit more. All the things she forbade me, or anyone, from doing at her bedside. I pull myself together and start to write down her words. I have to look up the word opprobrium. Typical of my mother to use the full artillery of her vocabulary despite having three spots of cancer in the brain.
Chemotherapy and radiotherapy at age 82, plus a fracture in her lumbar spine, had broken my mother’s body and spirit. She simply didn’t have the energy or the will to “fight” cancer any more, or the strength to face the side effects of the treatments or the drugs. She didn’t want to be sedated into submission either. Without her independence, with her eyesight bad enough that she could no longer read, no acting work in the post (due to Covid, not to any lack of offers I might add), her dignity daily diminishing, she simply did not want to be here.
At her request I had explored every avenue. Dignitas, which she had been a supporter of, was a bureaucratic nightmare. My mother would be dead by the time she was allowed go to Switzerland to legally die. Then we discussed hiring a swanky house and a dodgy doctor. We discussed every possible scenario. We howled with laughter, of course, but came to the conclusion that it’s impossible to pop your own clogs without it being plainly barbaric or painfully inefficient.
I recorded her saying to the doctor who had delivered the bad news, “I will pursue, in the end, an end to my life that I have chosen.” Finally, she agreed to come home to live out her last, and to die with me and my family.
My boys welcomed her with open arms. She slept in her own bed, now in our house, in a room surrounded by her favourite pictures and her creature comforts; a radio by the bed and Narcisse perfume sprayed in abundance if she didn’t feel up to a shower. We put a telly in there which she hoped would, and indeed did, entice my son to hang out with her. I fed her when she wanted to be fed but never forced food on her. She loved those cold yoghurt drinks when solids became too much. After a while she had no appetite at all, and so she began to take control of her circumstances. Not eating was also a way of making sure she never needed the lavatory.
After Ma died, as she did in her sleep at my house on 10 September 2020, my husband and I were mentally and physically exhausted. I had been sleeping in the room next to hers, my husband had been relegated to a truckle bed downstairs in the sitting room. My heightened sense of hearing, attuned to any noise she made, the same I’d had when my son was tiny, meant I wasn’t ever peacefully asleep. Looking after a dying person is eerily like looking after a newborn baby. But as a nation we never talk about dying, or what it really looks like, even though it is one thing we’ve all got in the post.
The first recording begins with the words: “Fair’s fair, Rachie – I’ve always spoken out” and at this I feel a rush of contrition. It has taken me three years to champion her cause. I have missed the deadline of Baroness Meacher’s attempt to change the law on assisted dying: the bill failed in May 2022 after passing its second reading in the House of Lords, simply because the parliamentary session ended before it was able to complete all subsequent necessary stages. As broken as our country’s system of politics is, I wonder would these words have made a difference? Knowing the effect her celebrity had on people of all ages and all genders, I am certain that they would.
But the truth is, in the initial aftermath of her death, the press and the public wanted to remember Diana Rigg as she once was. It was too soon to associate Emma Peel with physical decline, or the only Mrs James Bond with incontinence. But it was the indignity of incontinence which made my mother want to end her life. For her, and I know this isn’t the same for everybody, the tipping point in her quality of life was the inability to control her bowels. It depressed her so completely that her dignity was, on a daily basis, stretched beyond breaking point. She simply didn’t want to be here any more.
We managed, through her sheer stoicism, and with the joy brought by Guy, our son Jack and our collective sense of humour, to give her as happy a death as one could wish for. “I’ll take each day as it comes,” she said. “We’ll ’av a laff. We must ’av a laff if we can.” This daughter of Doncaster’s vowels slipped into her father’s thick northern brogue easily, and we did indeed ’av a laff. Death makes for a gruesome hilarity.
For me, those last two months with her at home were precious beyond words. On her birthday, a beautiful summer’s morning, we organised a musician to play The Lark Ascending beneath her bedroom window. We had “clinky drinkies” at 4 o’clock every day. But the truth of the matter is, if she could have, she would have taken it all back in an instant, and she would have suffered considerably less. Speaking to Tom Stoppard on the phone for the last time, she asked: “Tom, do you remember how I used to take my curtain calls?” She paused a beat, then said: “Quickly.”
Over the last five months I have been going through a vast tin trunk referred to as Pandora’s box. It was sent over from India with her when she was small. It is now stuffed to the brim with cuttings and interviews, reviews and magazine covers spanning her career from her first appearance as a sick Emily Brontë in a school play (covered in green powder for bilious effect and coughing all through everyone else’s lines) to the early 1980s, when the curator of the archive, her mother Mrs Beryl Rigg, suddenly died from a bleedout on the operating table.
I can’t believe how much there is that I didn’t know. Ma was totally unguarded in how she spoke to the press in her younger years. She said to one journalist in the US: “American men are dreadful lovers. The ones I’ve had were appalling.” There were no PR people guiding this bright young star: “I’m not exactly all teeth and tits, am I?” she said to the New York Times. Her candid interviews are astonishing. She talks about having an affair with a married man quite freely to one reporter; she buys another a badge that says: “Dirty old men need love too.”
I have learned how unusual it was to branch from classical stage actress at the Royal Shakespeare Company to worldwide TV star in the Avengers. It simply wasn’t done. Television was popular, theatre was highbrow, and never the twain should meet. But Ma realised that “television is the most important medium now. It’s feeding the theatre.” She understood her star power could put bums on seats and cash at the box office, and those who had once disapproved of her television career would suddenly be falling over themselves to put her back on the stage.
Vanessa Redgrave, on the news the morning after she died, commented that the world just wasn’t ready for Diana Rigg when she appeared on the scene because she was as ravishing as she was intelligent at a time when women weren’t supposed to be both.
Not long before Ma died, we were looking at old pictures with her and pressing rewind on all her triumphs down the years. My husband said: “You’ll be all over the news when you’ve gone, D, there’s going to be a right hoo-ha.” “Oooooooohhhhhhhhh!” she said, twinkling with pleasure. “Do you really think so?”
I know she would very much enjoy making headlines three years after her death. Still stirring the pot from beyond the grave.