I’m as happy as I’ve been in my life

In September 2023, Simon Boas was diagnosed with throat cancer. Aged just 46, he was told the disease was terminal, and that it would ultimately take his life.

Over the following year, he knitted together his reflections on life into a book – A Beginner’s Guide to Dying. The book is set to hit the shelves in October. It will be a posthumous publication.

In what he expects to be one of his final interviews, Simon spoke to Emma Barnett on the Today Programme, offering his reflections on life and death as he moved into hospice care.

My pain is under control and I’m terribly happy – it sounds weird to say, but I’m as happy as I’ve ever been in my life.

I used to think I’d rather be hit by the proverbial bus, but having a couple of months knowing this is coming has really helped me both do the boring ‘death-min’, but also get my thoughts and prepare myself, and feel so accepting of what’s to come.

It’s been such a great bonus, actually.

The book is called A Beginner’s Guide to Dying, but really what I’m trying to convey is how enjoying life to the full kind of prepares you for this.

In some ways I was lucky that my life and my career have taken me to quite a lot of places where death is more a part of life than it is for us in the West.

I spent my life as an aid worker – quite a lot with the UN – and I’ve lived in places where death is something that not just exists in the background, but is imminently possible.

I spent three years running a UN office in the Gaza Strip. I spent a lot of time in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and I’ve been working in Ukraine. Seeing people there for whom death is such a part of life – they lose children, they don’t know where the next meal is coming from – has really helped me.

I’ve also been a Samaritan for the past four years. In some cases you are on the line while people end their lives, so I think death has been more a part of my life than for many people.

It does us all good to think about it.

That’s not in a gloomy way… by kind of realising it’s inevitable and it’s a part of life, it actually throws life into perspective and helps you to enjoy it more and prioritise the important things.

My family are about to go through the most difficult thing in their lives. My lovely wife, Aurelie, and my parents… are well surrounded, and I hope that my cheerfulness in the leaving of life might perhaps help them in the next few years…

All our lives are little books – but they’re not someone else’s complete book. You’re a chapter or a page or a footnote in someone else’s life and they are going to keep writing beautiful chapters when you are gone.

And those green shoots can grow around grief and put it in perspective. I hope people will think, “I’m glad I read that – Simon’s story”. And just because it’s over, doesn’t mean it’s gone.

You don’t need to have been a politician or a mover and shaker or an aid worker or anything in life. All of us make a huge difference.

I love this quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch:

“The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

All of us make a huge difference in life. I love the idea that most films about time travel revolve around changing one tiny thing in the past, and of course they come back to the present and everything is different.

If you project that forward, you can change huge amounts of things into the future.

All our tombs will be unvisited in a few years – all our actions will mostly be unremembered – but the smile you gave the checkout lady or the kind words you gave to a stranger in the street could still be rippling forward.

We all have that opportunity and it’s a huge power. And I want everyone to realise how special and precious they are.

I love melted cheese. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to eat since Christmas. The chemotherapy killed my taste buds and the radiotherapy killed my salivary glands.

So, sadly, melted cheese and all the things I loved are off the menu.

However, I’ve been given full permission by my oncologist and my hospice team to enjoy as much Muscadet and as many cheeky rollups as I want – and I shall certainly be indulging in those and spending time with my family.

I’m sort of – not looking forward to my final day – of course that’s the wrong way to see it. But I’m kind of curious about it, and I’m happy and I’m ready.

As Julian of Norwich said: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

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