Advice on how to cope with death
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.