Tackling the Taboo of Death
Author Helena Dolny went on a quest to find the answer to the question: What gets people talking about death in ways that makes them feel more powerfully alive? This belief that we need to talk about living and dying inspired an eight-year learning journey which resulted in Before Forever After. It is a fascinating and absorbing book that includes stories of people – including the likes of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Joe Slovo, and Nelson Mandela – facing challenging circumstances.
The 57 stories contained within Before Forever After invite the reader to consider important questions such as: How do you want to live your life? Do you have secrets that might hurt loved ones following your death? What medical intervention do you want at the end of your life? What rituals matter to you?
SLOW: What inspired you to write the book? Helena Dolny (H.D): I wrote the book for my then 29-year-old daughter, Tessa. She’d experienced a death in her circle and asked me if I had something to read which might help her feel more at ease with our inevitable mortality. Searching my personal library and online, I could not find the book that I wanted to offer her. I had a weekend that I was home alone, and her request played on my mind. On a whim I sat down to write the outline of the book I’d wish to give to her if it were on sale.
SLOW: How would you describe the book? H.D: I hope it’s a book that will move your heart and spark conversations. It’s a collection of more than 50 narrative nonfiction stories organised around nine themes. What’s extraordinary is that the stories are ordinary. I did not search out the exceptional. I really wanted readers to be able to identify with the characters and draw parallels with their own lives.
SLOW: What is the book’s primary message? H.D: More talking, less suffering. Death is inevitable and losing those we love is a painful experience, but I believe I’ve witnessed people suffering even more because of conversations that hadn’t happened or weren’t concluded. The book’s strong underlying message is a call to action to have conversations with yourself and others, to be decisive, to undertake some important paperwork. The book ends with an invitation: “You’ve read all these peoples’ stories, now what about you?” On my website I’ll be providing an online workbook that people can go through in even more detail if they want.
SLOW: Who is the primary reader? H.D: Every single person who has reached the age of majority. Once you reach the age when you have to make decisions for yourself, then the book is relevant to you. How do you want to live? What attention are you giving to relationships as well as professional fulfilment? If anything untoward were to happen, have you left instructions about your end-of-life preferences?
SLOW: Is talking about death not a depressing subject?
H.D: I haven’t found it depressing, otherwise the last eight years of my life would have been miserable – whereas in fact they’ve been my happiest years to date. It’s true that some of the stories have made me weep, but feeling pain and sadness is part of our humanity and makes us realise that we are very much alive.
SLOW: How do you encourage people to engage more readily with death as part of daily life?
H.D: That’s my quest. Writing the book is one contribution to that. I think there has to be a mind shift in society – which I believe is happening – and a mind shift in various professions. In a United Kingdom survey of 961 doctors, two thirds said they were not comfortable talking to their patients about death. If your GP and nurses can’t easily talk with you, that’s not good. The religious professionals, financial advisors, the lawyers who help you draft your will – if every one of these professionals had end-of-life conversation training in the curriculum, and if talking became part of the job description, then this would really help drive change. There’s one story in the book about La Crosse in Wisconsin in the United States where this talking has happened. It’s been a concerted effort since 1985 and it has paid off. Now 95% of people there over the age of 18 have Advance Directives.
SLOW: Was writing Before Forever After painful for you or was it cathartic?
H.D: I haven’t ever found writing cathartic. It’s a record of what I’m feeling at that particular point in time. And just as an LP vinyl record has grooves, I’ve found that writing sometimes etches those grooves more deeply; the re-remembering an event re-invokes the pain. Some of the writing of Before Forever After was painful. But, tears can be both salty and sweet: Salt in the wound being sharply painful as well as a bitter-sweet reminder of something gone, once precious, or sometimes tears of regret and shame, appropriately humbling, prompting the need for compassion and self-forgiveness towards a younger self who knew no better.
SLOW: Anything else you would like to add? H.D: It was a privilege to listen to people and I’m enormously grateful. I’m especially admiring of Emeritus Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. He encouraged me consistently and I have such deep appreciation for his way of being a leader. And here he is again, “more at the end than the beginning” of his life, as he says, demonstrating personal leadership in his approach towards his own dying, and living his own truth as he says, “This taboo of not talking about dying needs to be challenged.”
Before Forever After is now available at all leading bookstores and on Amazon. For more information on the book and Helena Dolny, visit www.helenadolny.com.