Thursday, 3 September 2015

Shaking Hands with Death by Terry Pratchett Review


Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare strain of Alzheimer’s disease, in 2007. The illness shrinks and shrivels areas at the back of the brain. In his humorous way, Pratchett labelled his illness “the embuggerance” but it was a very serious threat to his life. 

In Shaking Hands with Death, a transcript of his speech for the Richard Dimbleby Lecture, Pratchett addresses, and argues for, assisted death, particularly as he didn’t want to become hooked up to machines in a state of living death and wanted to die still himself. 

It’s a clearly articulated and reasonable, convincing argument for a humanist approach to death, a moving speech made all the more powerful for not being sentimental or schmaltzy in the least. It’s also an angry swipe at the British healthcare system/the Health and Safety Executive which takes choice out of the patient’s hands and into those who seek to prolong life even if the patient exists in only the technical sense of “living”. 

Pratchett being Pratchett, he can’t help but be amusing even when he’s deadly solemn and his “nostalgia” for the Victorian doctors who’d cheerfully euthanize patients who wanted it, made me smile. 

Assisted death is an important issue though and the case for it that Pratchett outlines here brings home its relevance to many sufferers of Alzheimer’s, and their families. Death – like life – is sacred too. And so is dignity. 

Terry Pratchett died a natural death due to his illness in his home surrounded by his family in March this year. I hope that, once the life left him, he heard a voice to his side say: HELLO, SIR TERRY. I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, BUT I COULD MURDER A CURRY. 

(This essay/speech is also included in the non-fiction collection A Slip of the Keyboard)

Shaking Hands with Death

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