Tack­ling the Taboo of Death

SLOW Magazine - - Contents - Text: Grant Bushby Im­ages © He­lena Dolny

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.

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