I pray that Diana Rigg's last words will change law on dying

JENNI MURRAY: I pray that Diana Rigg’s last words will change law on dying

  • Late actress Diana Rigg recorded tapes imploring MPs to legalise assisted dying
  • READ MORE: I brought my mum to Dignitas – I was distraught after watching her die but relieved that her torment had ended… Then a phone call from the police began a new nightmare

In the final weeks of Diana Rigg’s life, she recorded tapes imploring MPs to legalise assisted dying. Suffering the ravages of lung cancer, the 82-year-old actress said: ‘I think it is unfair that I don’t have the choice.’

Diana died in September 2020. I am not at all surprised that it’s taken three years for her daughter Rachael Stirling to listen to and then reveal the contents of these tapes. 

Nothing can be worse for a daughter than to spend her days and most of her nights watching her clever, active, beautiful mother racked with agonising pain. To see her subjected to the humiliation of her body letting her down to the extent that she longs for, begs for death.

I know what Rachael must be going through because I’ve been there. My mother’s Parkinson’s disease made her utterly helpless. She could do nothing for herself. 

In the care home where she spent the last year of her life, she depended upon carers for her toilet needs. She was hoisted from her bed to the bath. She began to find it impossible to eat and became as thin as a skeleton.

Actress Diana Rigg (pictured), who died in September 2020, recorded tapes imploring MPs to legalise assisted dying during the final weeks of her life 

The same words came to me repeatedly: ‘Jen please help me. Help me die.’ I could give her only one answer; there was nothing I could do. 

The 1961 Suicide Act made it illegal to assist someone who longed to die. If I could find a way to help, although I wouldn’t know where to start, I would be risking 14 years in prison.

I knew she wouldn’t want that, yet still she kept asking: ‘Please Jen, help me. I want to die.’

Nearly 20 years on, I can still hear her voice. I still feel the anger, guilt and pain — fury at how powerless I was to give my mother the help she longed for.

Ever since, I have campaigned with Dignity In Dying for a law to enable assisted dying for those suffering from a terminal illness who’ve made the choice to die. It has been debated many times in the UK but has never succeeded in making it to the statute book.

So here, such a long time after my heartbreaking experience, comes another loving daughter, caring for her mother, finding herself fixed with that superb actor’s terrifyingly cold, harsh look — the one Diana employed to such effect as the Queen Of Thorns in Game Of Thrones — and hearing her plea: ‘Rachie, it’s gone on too long — push me over the edge.’

Like me, Rachael did not have the power to relieve her mother’s suffering. She says her mother ‘suffered as much as I have known any human to suffer. 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 f***ing mean”.’

I can only imagine what Rachael went through, listening to what her mother had to say in the deep, strong voice that made her such a startling performer.

The 1961 Suicide Act made it illegal to assist someone who longed to die, with the penalty of up to 14 years in prison (stock image)

Diana had asked her daughter to make her recorded statement public after her death. The task of listening to her mother’s words is one for which Rachael had to prepare carefully. She took herself away from the family home, where her mother died in her sleep.

Rachael’s hideaway is in Brighton, where she says she’s splashed out on a room with a balcony overlooking the sea. She has a battered old card table in the space in front of the window where she can write down her mother’s words in longhand. It felt more suitable than typing. 

She lit a candle, put a small tube containing her mother’s ashes on the table and poured a glass of her mother’s preferred prosecco. It’s clear a ritual was necessary for the task of communicating her mother’s words to a wider world.

She believes her mother’s fame and the admiration she enjoyed will help influence the ongoing battle for a change in the law.

I know, and I’m sure Diana was aware, that legalising assisted death is controversial. There are those whose deeply-held religious beliefs make it impossible to countenance permission being given for one human to assist in taking the life of another. That responsibility should be left only to the God Diana had gone right off.

I’ve spoken to people such as former wheelchair racer Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who oppose any change in the law out of fear for the profoundly disabled. Would their lives be put at risk if they were thought to be too much trouble or maybe if parents believed they had no chance of a fruitful life? Then there are the elderly who might be thought dispensable by grasping families.

The God question is not an easy one to debate, rooted as it is in unquestionable belief. The other concerns, it seems to me, are covered in the proposed law. It would allow assistance only to those with a terminal illness, six months from the likelihood of death and of sound enough mind to be able to make the decision themselves.

Jenni Murray (pictured) campaigns with Dignity In Dying for a law to enable assisted dying for those suffering from a terminal illness who’ve made the choice to die

It’s surely what Diana meant when she said: ‘Nobody talks about how awful, how truly awful the details of this condition are, and the ignominy that is attached to it. It’s high time they did. And it’s high time there was movement in the law to give choice to people in my position. This means giving human beings political autonomy over their own death.’

Choice is the important word in this debate. It must be up to the individual to choose. No daughter or son should ever be left grieving for years because they were unable to grant a parent’s last wish.

I am so glad I said no to Strictly!

The essence of Strictly: Annabel dancing with Johannes on the show

Can 2024 really be the 20th anniversary of Strictly? And can I really have been a devotee for so long?

Sad to see Annabel and Johannes go on Sunday. She was what Strictly’s all about. Someone who starts knowing nothing and becomes Ginger Rogers. 

Still, I have no regrets about saying no when I was asked five years ago. Twinkle Toes is not my middle name! 

Hamas victims won’t be silenced

Yovel Sharvit Trabelsi, whose husband was shot dead in the October 7 attacks in Israel, wore a wedding dress covered with the hands of man on the attack in the fashion show

For years, rape has been used as a weapon of war and women have hidden in shame. That is not the case in Israel. 

It took the UN and feminist groups far too long to acknowledge the sexual violence carried out by Hamas during the attacks on October 7. But the victims will not hide. 

Instead they turned the idea of a fun fashion show on its head. The husband of Yovel Sharvit Trabelsi was shot dead by her side. She saw other women raped and murdered. 

For the show she wore a wedding dress covered with the hands of men on the attack. She has a bullet hole in her head and a ribbon gagging her mouth. 

She and her colleagues could not be clearer about the crimes that took place. They will not be silenced. 

Awful Eiffel queues thwarted me, too

The Eiffel Tower has the world’s most complained about queues 

Ah, the Eiffel Tower — it’s been crowned the visitor attraction with the world’s most complained about queues. I lived in Paris for a year as a student and never went up it — always waiting at the bottom to gather up the tourists for whom I was responsible as a tour guide. 

Dozens of times I’ve been back to my favourite city. My sons have said: ‘Don’t worry, Mum, the queue’s too long.’ 

For my 70th we planned to go up the tower. What happened? Covid and lockdown. Now a trip is top of my bucket list. Advance booking essential. 

There will be no more parking on the pavement in Scotland as of this week, with heavy fines for perpetrators. Good. 

Now let’s extend the law across the rest of the UK. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: pavements are for pedestrians and no one else. 

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