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I’m ashamed to say I had not made a living will’

Author: Mary Ryan
19 January 2018
  • coffee with memo pad

Mary Alacoque Ryan was a second-level teacher for 30 years and is currently a correspondent with the Tuam Herald. The recent death of her mother and her own hospitalisation as a result of an accident, have reinforced her previous thoughts that there are too many unacceptable happenings in Ireland’s health care. It is not only that fiscal inequality follows people into hospitals but it is also that the system is not serving the people in ways where people have a say in their care during illness and their dying.It is time for the people to start writing the job description for health care. This can be done in a number of ways including by becoming aware of people’s rights under the Patients’ Charter and the responsibilities it places on the State. Here is also the People’s Charter on Dying, Death and Bereavement in Ireland which aims to allow people to die with dignity and respect, and their loved ones to be part of that.

In the last half decade I’ve experienced the death of five or six loved ones, two family members and friends. Some of them had notice of their impending deaths, a couple more or less dropped from their standing. All were shocking because they had not lived their full lives.

Recently I came close to meeting my Waterloo when I stepped out in front a bus on to a contra-flow lane when we were away. The bus beeped loudly and stopped about twenty yards away from me.

That gave me a fright. I began to think about what would happen if I’d been killed. I’m ashamed to say there would have been a bit of a mess left for others to deal with: a filing cabinet full to the brim; memorabilia; dozens of commonplace books which somebody might bother to go through; hundreds of books, some fairly valuable but with no record of what’s what; works of art I’ve been collecting since I began to earn money but no record of them; a number of slim bank accounts; old school copies and folders full of notes from conferences, lectures, seminars and other meetings I’ve attended; hundreds of photographs, some in albums but many still in boxes.

I’m ashamed to say I had not made a living will which would detail what should happen to me if I’m unable to give consent. What would have happened to me had that bus totalled me? Would I have been kept on a life support or would somebody else have pulled that plug?

With all that in mind, I recently attended my first Death Café, which is a gathering of people who drink tea (or stronger), eat cake and talk about death. It’s about normalising the notion of death “with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives”.

There are 16 Death Cafés in Ireland and 4,154 in forty-two countries across Australasia, Europe and North America – all since 2011. All it takes is one person to convene the meeting. There were about 25 people at the one I attended. There is no agenda or theme – other than death. The evening was introduced by the convenor and off we went talking to those beside us about death – that’s the only objective. It’s a fluid model which gives people the opportunity to talk about the logistics of their deaths.

The first man I spoke to has brain cancer. I didn’t react with “Oh I’m sorry to hear that” but just stayed mute when he told me. It would have felt wrong to start sympathising with him. He was very phlegmatic about it, pointing out that it will get him in the end, but in the meantime, he’s going to live. That was a breath of fresh air. He said he might consider going to Switzerland if things get very bad.

A young woman spoke about the unexpected death in a car accident of her much loved 32- year old brother. She could not stop grieving until a psychologist asked her if she really believed it when she said she’d meet him again – she didn’t and once she’d accepted that and no longer had to lie to herself, she began to live again.

A young couple, both psychologists used to talking about death, talked about the dignity and indignity of death. They pointed out how gentle we are to suffering animals that we can end their lives but we force humans to go on suffering. They’d recently experienced the death of a friend’s mother who took months to die in searing pain. The whole family was shattered by the time she died.

The Death Café is a “social franchise” which means that people who wish to start one, sign up to guidelines developed by founder Jon Underwood and psychotherapist Sue Barsky Reid (a mother and son team). Council worker Underwood had read about Bernard Crettaz, an eminent Swiss sociologist who established the café mortel in 2004 in the Restaurant du Théâtre du Passage in the Swiss town of Neuchâtel. The only rule was that “there was to be no prescription: no topic, no religion, no judgement”.

There’s an interesting presentation on the theme by Death Café Portland organiser Kate Brassington on who says “I look to my own death seeing it as a call to live life fully… we have one chance to die and one chance to live because of it.”

There’s one thing about this topic – you’re definitely going there. I find it refreshing to be open about the inevitable.

Why not be proactive and consider setting up a Death Café?

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