O'Faolain's anguish at facing death can give a jolt to our lives
IN HER weekend interview with Marian Finucane, Nuala O'Faolain described facing her experience of dying. With the same unsentimental, uncompromising courage she has brought to many dark corners of human experience, she gave this country a shot of emotional honesty that has allowed us to confront what is perhaps our deepest fear, writes TONY BATES .
There is a large body of opinion in psychology that believes the fear of death is natural and present in everyone, that it is the basic fear that influences all others, a fear from which no one is immune, no matter how disguised it may be.
In the normal course of everyday life we move around without thinking much about our own death. A person may say he or she knows they will die some day, but they do not care. They are having too good a time with living to give it much thought.
But death is everywhere; it nips at the edge of our consciousness, it whirrs beneath the membrane of life and some days it intrudes fiercely into our "safe" world and shakes us to the core.
Death is a fact of life. If we are to make sense of our lives, if our life is to hold some meaning that is grounded and durable, we need to come to terms with the fact that death is part of every moment of our lives. It is not merely something that will happen to us some day; its presence infuses our lives as good experiences fade away, as friendships pass into memory, as we have to let go of something or someone we believed we could hold on to forever.
Virtually every great thinker and artist has considered death at some point. Their insights give us some reason to believe that an awareness of death can enrich rather than impoverish our lives. "It is only in the face of death that man's self is born," wrote St Augustine.
In a similar vein, Irving Yalom, the psychotherapist, proposed that "although the physicality of death destroys man, the idea of death saves him". Yalom acknowledged that this is not an idea that is easily accepted, particularly among those who view death as an "unmitigated evil" or a cruel joke.
But he asks us to imagine what life would be like without any thought of death. Suddenly life loses some of its intensity. "Life shrinks when death is denied," he wrote.
For Yalom, the courage to accept death rescues us from superficial living. From being swept along by the tide of idle chatter and distraction where we rarely experience the wonder of simply being alive, right here, right now.
Nuala O'Faolain said that one of her regrets was that she was not more "reflective". In his poem Postscript, Seamus Heaney also cautioned us not to allow our lives become merely "a hurry" through which things pass. Sometimes it takes the intrusion of death to jolt us into an appreciation of what a gift it is simply to be alive.
Evidence of the power of death to deepen our appreciation of life comes from research with people who have had near-death experiences and from terminally ill patients. Many of these people reported startling shifts in their attitudes towards life as a result, including: a major rethink of what they regarded as life's priorities; freedom to choose not to do things that they did not wish to do; an enhanced sense of the wilder natural elements of life; deeper communication with loved ones; and fewer fears of what other people thought about them.
These shifts in no way denied that for each of them, and for each of us, dying is hard. We struggle to be born and we struggle to die.
As we face the ultimate frontier of our lives, and experience in a deeper way than ever what being alone means, we naturally feel frightened. It can help to articulate these fears to someone who is able to hear them and receive what we say in silence.
What is most important for the dying person is that their unique experience of dying can be accepted, whatever it is. Acceptance releases them to say whatever is real for them. Sometimes their distress may have to do with facing the unknown, but very often it is about the welfare of those they have to leave behind. Fears and painful emotions are eased when they are expressed.
Honest, heartfelt communication, touch and humour matter most to the dying. But it can be hard for us to simply be with them and let them be. Sometimes, unintentionally, our uneasiness isolates them, as they become more concerned with taking care of us rather than working through their own grief and anguish.
The best advice for those caring for the dying would appear to be to take care of yourself first of all, to resist trying to make the dying person "feel positive", but rather to trust that your acceptance and presence are powerful supports that enable them to find their own way to say goodbye.
We are born with a body that is at first weak and small. As we grow we become more capable and manifest, a life force that has a unique personality. With this life force we shape and create our world and affect the lives of others. It is like a sacred loan that we've been entrusted with. We don't have it forever. The beauty, the quality of what we do with it is not related to how long we live but to how we live. One day our job will be done but what we've created in our life will live on.
Nuala O'Faolain's legacy will be echoed in the appreciation and love that her many readers and listeners feel for her. Her gift in saying what most of us are afraid to say, or cannot say, has emboldened us to think about our own death. Her anguish at having to let go of a life that meant so much to her may wake the rest of us to the beauty of whatever time we have left.
Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong: the National Centre for Youth Mental Health (www.headstrong.ie)
© 2008 The Irish Times