Ad­vice on how to cope with death

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - TANYA WATERWORTH

IN BE­TWEEN the launch of her book, Be­fore For­ever Af­ter, at The Book Lounge in Cape Town and tak­ing tea with Arch­bishop Emer­i­tus Des­mond Tutu on Wed­nes­day, He­lena Dolny took time out to chat about her new book, life, death and ev­ery­thing in be­tween.

And while talk­ing about death may be taboo for many, es­pe­cially when it beck­ons, it is a pro­found sub­ject wrought with emo­tion, and a cer­tainty for us all.

Dolny wrote the book for her then-29-year-old daugh­ter who had ex­pe­ri­enced a death in her close cir­cle.

“She asked me if I had some­thing to read which might help her feel more at ease with our in­evitable mor­tal­ity. There were a lot of books about dy­ing or griev­ing, but none for those who are still healthy but want to find some equa­nim­ity with dy­ing.

“As has been said, if you can’t find the book you want, then write it,” she said.

Hav­ing helped her late hus­band, Struggle ac­tivist Joe Slovo, through four years of can­cer, Dolny al­ready had close ex­pe­ri­ence with the Grim Reaper.

“A week be­fore Joe died, I asked him to be as spe­cific as pos­si­ble about what he wanted, such as what kind of cof­fin. He wanted a sim­ple pine cof­fin. When you are very clear on all that sort of de­tail, it’s very help­ful.

“When you are deal­ing with griev­ing peo­ple, you don’t al­ways recog­nise them. I know when Joe died, I be­came a ver­sion of me that I didn’t know.”.

The re­search for her book took eight years, which in­cluded hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple like Nel­son Man­dela and those in the town­ships and across the ocean to Mid­west Amer­ica, a hospi­tal bed in Lusaka and the shores of Lake Como in Italy.

“I also did a column talk­ing about death and peo­ple started writ­ing to me with their sto­ries. It is a taboo sub­ject and, in fact, I al­most called my book ‘I don’t want to talk about it’.”

Weav­ing in her own life ex­pe­ri­ence, Dolny col­lected and wrote the 57 sto­ries which make up the book and which she de­scribed as in­clud­ing “ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries of or­di­nary peo­ple”.

It is di­vided into three sec­tions: the first deals with present life and re­la­tion­ships; the sec­ond fo­cuses on re­spect­ing choices, rit­ual and be­reave­ment; the third looks at plan­ning, preparation and hav­ing necessary con­ver­sa­tions.

While the book cov­ers the prac­ti­cal as­pects of pre­par­ing for death, such as fi­nances and liv­ing wills, it also looks at emo­tions and the rip­ple ef­fects of be­reave­ment.

Dolny in­vites read­ers to con­sider im­por­tant ques­tions, such as: how do you want to live your life?

Do you have se­crets that may hurt loved ones af­ter your death? What med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions do you want at the end of your life? What fu­neral rit­u­als mat­ter to you?

Fam­i­lies of­ten be­come di­vided and frac­tured over such is­sues.

“Grief shapes who you be­come, you move for­ward and it’s a dif­fer­ent you,” said Dolny ad­ding that re­al­is­ing one’s own mor­tal­ity was some­thing “ev­ery sin­gle per­son has to ex­pe­ri­ence”.

She ad­vised that while some se­crets were best left alone, some could slip out af­ter death.

“A week af­ter Joe died, I found out a very big se­cret. Be cir­cum­spect and leave a note behind to con­tex­tu­alise the se­cret,” she said.

When it came to the griev­ing process, Dolny added: “I found the frame­work of a year very help­ful, be­cause you have to go through all the an­niver­saries and sea­sons. At the end of the year, I took a deep breath and de­cided it was time to move for­ward.”

The book also looks at how mod­ern so­ci­ety no longer deals with death in the same way our an­ces­tors did.

“Joe was quite ag­i­tated when he was dy­ing and I think there was too much fo­cus on liv­ing and not enough preparation for dy­ing. “Na­tive Amer­i­cans have a death lodge where you can visit a per­son and take your leave. In mod­ern so­ci­ety, medicine now pro­vides so many op­por­tu­ni­ties for pro­longed life, it’s about hospi­tal pro­ce­dures and there’s no go­ing home. “Cre­ate a room with gen­tle light, can­dles, pic­tures on the wall and time for con­ver­sa­tion,” said Dolny. Her mother died in De­cem­ber and, while Be­fore For­ever Af­ter is not about re­li­gion, Dolny asked her mother if she would be happy to see her fa­ther again in heaven. “She told me she didn’t be­lieve heaven was a place, but rather a state of being. Some Eastern re­li­gions also be­lieve you go into the ether and be­come star­dust,” she said. While the rich cast of char­ac­ters in the book won’t al­ways pro­vide the an­swers, Dolny hopes it will give read­ers “the abil­ity to ask clearer ques­tions re­gard­ing death and dy­ing so they may shape their own unique paths to­wards this fierce, fun­da­men­tal and above all, in­evitable, force of life”. ● Be­fore For­ever Af­ter is avail­able online and from all ma­jor book­stores.

He­lena Dolny has pub­lished her book, Be­fore For­ever Af­ter, which asks ques­tions about re­la­tion­ships, se­crets kept un­til af­ter death and the im­por­tance of rit­u­als around be­reave­ment.

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