Last month, at 4pm, on a quiet Friday afternoon, the doorbell rang at Ann and Geoff Whaley’s pretty Buckinghamshire home, throwing their lives into turmoil.
On opening the door, Ann was surprised to see two serious-faced strangers. They introduced themselves as a social worker and a detective sergeant from Thames Valley police’s domestic abuse unit. What could they possibly want?
She and 80-year-old Geoff — terminally ill with motor neurone disease (MND) and paralysed from the neck down — had been happily married for 52 years. There was no abuse in their house, of any sort. There never had been.
When Geoff was told that he had six to nine months to live, last December, he decided to book the date for his death — terrified he’d become too ill to travel and miss his opportunity
More recently, everyone knew that Ann, 76, who’d sung in the local Anglican Church choir for more than 40 years, was devoted to her retired chartered accountant husband. Even more so since his diagnosis of the fatal degenerative disease in December 2016.
Yet they asked to speak to Geoff alone, plunging Ann into ‘complete shock’. She made a frantic phone call to their daughter, Alix, who raced to comfort her distraught mother.
Next, it was Ann’s turn. ‘I asked them: “Do you seriously think I am abusing my husband?” I was so cross because I would have done absolutely anything to avoid seeing Geoff suffering and in pain.’
The social worker replied: ‘Absolutely not.’ So what on earth was going on?
Someone — anonymously, it turned out — had told social services about Geoff’s plans to end his life at the Dignitas assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland. They were due to fly to Zurich in two weeks.
Instead of spending quiet time together, Geoff fretted while Ann dealt with a stream of emails from the police requesting evidence of flights, hotel bookings and all the other arrangements relating to Dignitas. The following week, two more police officers were sent to speak to the Whaleys
And now Ann was at the centre of a criminal investigation, suspected of assisting a suicide — prohibited by UK law and punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
All she’d done was book their flights and Swiss hotel, in a final loving act of compassion, when her husband lost the use of his hands and could no longer operate his iPad.
‘Geoff had survived all these bombs thrown at him as his disease progressed. All he ever wanted was to die in my arms,’ says Ann.
‘He was so incredibly brave, but the biggest, final bomb came with the police and he just sobbed. That’s when the dam caved in.
‘I’d never seen Geoff cry before, he wasn’t that kind of man. He was of an old-fashioned generation, where men looked after their wives, and never wept. He was proud of his stiff upper lip.
‘He’d spent his life protecting me, so watching my lovely husband sob, I was cross, really cross.
‘First of all, I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong. I wasn’t a law-breaker. I’d simply done what my loving husband asked me to do because he was paralysed.
‘I quite understood that the law had to be followed. It wasn’t the police’s fault, but I was very cross that someone had anonymously intervened to try to prevent my husband from doing what he wanted. I have no idea who it was and I don’t know what they were trying to achieve, but whatever it I was, it spectacularly backfired, didn’t it?
‘Together we managed to turn a negative into a positive and I discovered a strength I didn’t know I had.’
Sitting in the sunny conservatory where she was questioned by police just weeks ago, she speaks in a clear, confident voice — which falters only occasionally — as she talks of the tumultuous events of the past month
Geoff Whaley died just over a fortnight ago, just as he intended, lying in his wife’s arms at Dignitas on February 7. This is Ann’s first interview since then.
The night before he died, they shared one last meal at a Swiss restaurant with their two adopted children Dominic, 47, and Alix, 43, plus four close friends.
It was a happy, if poignant night, filled with laughter. Geoff had stipulated no tears.
At 11am the following day, he calmly sipped a drink laced with lethal drugs, before slipping into a coma. He stopped breathing 15 minutes later.
His last words to Ann were: ‘I love you so.’
It was the peaceful, dignified end he’d hoped for, but in the traumatic days before his death he asked Ann to do one last thing for him — type up the searing letter he’d dictated, to be circulated the minute he passed away.
Addressed to MPs, it would trigger headlines worldwide and reignite the legal, moral, political and ethical debate on assisted suicide.
‘By the time you read this, I will be dead,’ he wrote. ‘The law in this country robbed me of control over my death. It forced me to seek solace in Switzerland. Then it sought to punish those attempting to help me get there. The hypocrisy and cruelty of this is astounding.
‘Though it is perfectly legal for me to make arrangements and travel to Dignitas by myself, the minute anyone else “assists” me in any way — which is essential, due to my condition — they are liable for prosecution.’
‘The thought that I might not make it to Switzerland, or that if I did, Ann might be facing 14 years in jail for helping me, was almost too much to bear. In 52 years of marriage, Ann had not seen me cry. The day we were contacted by the police, I sobbed.’
Embargoed radio and TV interviews with the Whaleys — recorded the week before they flew to Switzerland — were also broadcast the day of his death.
The police case has now been dropped, but Ann has been warned that it could be reopened if new information comes to light.
Sitting in the sunny conservatory where she was questioned by police just weeks ago, she speaks in a clear, confident voice — which falters only occasionally — as she talks of the tumultuous events of the past month.
Ann says — remarkably — that she has now forgiven the person who triggered the criminal investigation.
She clutches the wad of letters and messages of support she has since received from all over the world, including several from MPs promising to call for a review of UK laws which prohibit assisted dying.
Some are addressed: ‘Widow of Geoff Whaley who was on BBC news, Buckinghamshire’.
‘The grief hasn’t really hit me yet, but I’m sure it will,’ says Ann.
‘In those terrible two weeks before Geoff died, I kept all my emotions locked in a box. I’ve only peeked at them since he’s gone. I’m not ready to let them out yet.
‘During the day, there’s still so much to do, but it’s at night when it hits me. Lying in our bed, I reach out and suddenly realise Geoff’s not there any more. I miss him.’
Ann says she has only cried properly once — when she found a letter Geoff had written to her, in a shaky hand before he lost the use of his fingers, tucked in with his will.
Her voice wavers, as she reads out loud: ‘Just in case you had any doubt, I need to tell you that I have loved you from the first moment I saw you and have considered myself the luckiest person in the world to have spent my life with you.
‘The thing that you have to do in the future is to live the rest of your life as happy as you can. I cannot bear to think of you unhappy. Promise?
‘When you read this letter, we will no longer be able to hold each other in our arms — physically. But mentally we will be entwined for ever. Forgive me, my darling but I can’t write any longer. So much left unsaid, except to say I have loved you for ever. Bless you, my beloved. Geoff xxx.’
During their many happy years together, Ann never once regretted accepting Geoff’s marriage proposal, just three weeks after he gatecrashed her 21st birthday party at her flat in Notting Hill, West London.
His high-flying career as an international finance officer took them to Switzerland and Italy, where they lived in a house overlooking Lake Como, before returning to the UK to put down roots with their children.
After suffering a heart attack aged 51, Geoff gave up his job and started a small consultancy working from home. Although not religious, he volunteered to become the local Anglican church’s treasurer and helped many of its parishioners.
Ann, a former PA, was content to be a wife, mother and homemaker, helping her husband back to full health.
She is grateful for the extra 30 years she had him and the time they shared together with grandchildren Joshua, 17, Lauren, 14, Henry, ten, and four-year-old Martha.
Fit and active, Geoff played golf and tennis three times a week, went paragliding and was still skiing every winter season well into his 70s, when the first symptoms of MND started to show — causing his hands to twitch and legs to stumble.
Over the next two years, the disease would rob Geoff of all movement, eventually confining him to a wheelchair.
‘From the day he was diagnosed, Geoff never once complained or showed any bitterness, despite losing the ability to do everything he loved,’ says Ann.
‘He was almost 80 years old; he’d had a good life. He wasn’t afraid of dying, but he was frightened of the journey there. His mind was still as sharp as a pin, it’s just that his brain had outlived his body.’
When Geoff was told that he had six to nine months to live, last December, he decided to book the date for his death — terrified he’d become too ill to travel and miss his opportunity.
By then, though, he’d lost all movement in his fingers — the last of his body to go — and asked Ann to help him.
‘For two years Geoff had been completely open, telling everyone — family, friends, carers, his GP surgery and neurology consultant — of his intention to end his life at Dignitas,’ says Ann.
Geoff Whaley died just over a fortnight ago, just as he intended, lying in his wife’s arms at Dignitas on February 7. This is Ann’s first interview since then. The night before he died, they shared one last meal at a Swiss restaurant with their two adopted children Dominic, 47, and Alix, 43, plus four close friends
‘As far as we are aware, everyone was supportive.’
But not everyone, it turned out.
‘Even the detective sergeant who knocked on our door said he’d never seen a case like it in more than 20 years. It was very painful to think someone had waited until the very last stretch to throw this bomb into our lives. I can only imagine it was someone who had never met or spoken to Geoff.’
Ann was convinced the whole matter would be dropped, once police had established that this was what Geoff wanted and had planned himself.
Only that’s not what happened. Instead of spending quiet time together, Geoff fretted while Ann dealt with a stream of emails from the police requesting evidence of flights, hotel bookings and all the other arrangements relating to Dignitas.
The following week, two more police officers were sent to speak to the Whaleys, who — Ann says — were so sympathetic the young female PC, when they left, asked: ‘Can I give you a hug?’
The seriousness of her predicament sunk in when Ann was then asked to attend her local police station, where she was interviewed under caution.
She will forever be grateful to the campaign group Dignity In Dying, which put Ann in touch with a criminal defence lawyer, who supported her through this ordeal.
‘We were in this terrible limbo. We didn’t know if the police would seize our passports to prevent us from flying to Zurich, or if I’d be arrested and charged,’ says Ann.
Ann says that it was a detective inspector who, after they endured seven days of torment, visited the Whaleys to inform them that the case had been dropped — following discussions at the very highest level of the Crown Prosecution Service.
Their relief was tempered, however, with the warning that Ann could still face prosecution if further information came to light so — furious at his wife’s treatment — Geoff abandoned his hopes for a quiet death.
Instead, he decided to go out in a blaze of publicity to be unleashed just after he’d ended his life.
She and 80-year-old Geoff — terminally ill with motor neurone disease (MND) and paralysed from the neck down — had been happily married for 52 years. There was no abuse in their house, of any sort. There never had been
Prior to that he also travelled to Westminster to speak personally to more than 30 parliamentarians in the hope of preventing another family enduring their ordeal.
Although suicide has not been a criminal act for more than half a century, assisted dying is prohibited under the Suicide Act of 1961.
In 2015, MPs voted to reject a bill which would have allowed terminally ill patients with fewer than six months to live the choice of an assisted death, provided certain safeguards are met.
Opponents cited moral and ethical reasons for objecting to a change in the law, arguing that it could leave terminally ill people vulnerable to abuse of the system.
Others argued that because palliative care is so advanced these days, no one need fear pain or prolonged suffering.
Last May, Dignitas confirmed that the 394th person from the UK had died at its clinic — at a cost of around £11,000 — and between 2012 and 2016 membership rose 39 per cent from 821 to 1,139.
‘Geoff was so eloquent, MPs were queuing up to speak to him,’ says Ann. ‘He told them that he was lucky to be able to go to Dignitas, but what about all those people who don’t have that choice?
‘All I did was book flights and a hotel, at my husband’s request, but in the eyes of the law, I am treated no differently from someone who agrees to end someone’s life by putting a pillow over their face. It’s wrong!
‘This isn’t about the police, who have a duty to investigate. It’s the law that needs to change.’
Ann knows there are many people who would disagree, perhaps not least the person who tipped off the authorities triggering their nightmare.
‘I can now forgive that person, because what they’ve set in motion has become Geoff’s legacy. Debate has started. We don’t know where it will go, but it has been opened,’ says Ann, who has formally written to their ‘incredibly supportive’ MP, Dame Cheryl Gillan, to ask her to request a meeting with the Justice Secretary, David Gauke.
‘It doesn’t matter who made that call, because the whole situation has been turned into a positive.’