I had spent forty years as a physiotherapist in the NHS and my retirement was looming unplanned when I decided, during my final working year, to apply for the University of Glasgow access course. I discovered that my previous academic qualifications, outwith a four-year limit, didn’t count, and that my MSc, that had researched a very niche corner of human anatomy, had little relevance to my chosen topics of English Literature and History of Art. The access programme required regular seminars, essays and a final exam. Although I had attended evening classes over the years in various aspects of literature, I had not written an English exam since I was seventeen, and Art History was completely new territory.
I enjoyed the courses thoroughly and I was delighted to gain the grades I needed for entry. The next four years were a challenge and a pleasure. I had the privilege of spending my third year at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, rediscovering beautiful British Columbia, not as a visitor, but as a guest. During my time in Canada, new legislation was enacted to allow physician-assisted dying. This had followed many years of discussion and campaigning, and several landmark legal cases had come to public prominence as a result.
In my honours year, home in Glasgow, I studied medical humanities, taking the opportunity to combine my love of literature with my clinical background. By this time, I had become interested in how writers approach the issue of death across different eras and genres, and especially how end-of-life decision-making is represented. This led to my examination of issues of individual autonomy and institutional paternalism, and how they were depicted in the literature. Even in jurisdictions where physician-assisted dying is permitted, the topic is an emotive one which polarises opinion.
When reading through academic papers, legal documents, personal accounts and imaginative writing, it became clear to me that beyond legal arguments, ethical principles or moral perspectives, it was the human narrative that was the crucial thread that informed the difficult but significant decisions that led to change. I followed the human narrative, in the form of memoir, in my master’s dissertation, to understand how those approaching their own death, or grieving the death of a loved one, used their writing as a device to come to terms with, or to fend off, the end of life and its consequences for the survivors.
I am delighted to be embarking on my PhD at Dumfries, and I already feel that the End-of-Life Studies Group, staff and postgraduates, have not only given me academic support, but made me feel welcome. My topic is chosen or requested death and I will specifically examine how writers, in the broadest sense, address the themes of suicide and physician-assisted dying.
My texts will include non-fiction and imaginative literature, film, television and other media sources. In addition, I will use autoethnographic methodology and literary criticism to analyse a piece of personal writing that chronicles the circumstances that led to a chosen death. I hope that this work will lead to a better understanding of the reasons why some individuals, in certain situations, want to have the choice about how and when their lives should end. I also hope that it will raise awareness of the need for more open discussion about end-of-life decision-making.