Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Nuala O'Faolain opens the way for other terminally ill people to say how they feel

This is the text of my article which appeared in The Evening Herald on Monday, 15th April 2008. Please note that many listeners found listening to the interview distressing. A transcript is here on the Irish Independent website. O'Faolain is author of Are you somebody, Almost there, My dream of you and The story of Chicago May.

[Note: Nuala O'Faolain died on 9th May 2008]Many people have wondered if Nuala O’Faolain’s interview with Marian Finucane on RTÉ Radio One on Saturday was distressing to persons with terminal illness. I would suggest that the interview was distressing to all of us but potentially comforting as well, two reasons.

The first is that we all have a terminal illness because, like her, we will all suffer death though not all of us will know about it at the time. The second is that people with terminal illnesses are expected by society to face the end in a particular way, namely with serenity, yet for many this is not the way they want to do it.

The bleakness and despair in her interview struck home particularly, I think, because it echoed that awful bleakness that a person can feel when they are awake alone in the middle of the night and the gloomiest of thoughts come to haunt them.

Nuala brought that bleakness into the light of a Saturday morning when most of us do not want to be reminded of it.

Psychologists say that one of the great crises we face in our lives is the realisation that we are going to die. We all know intellectually that one day we will die but it can take decades for us to feel the full force of that realisation. It can be triggered by the death of another person, even somebody we do not know very well.

When the realisation happens, we must come to terms with a reality that shakes us to foundations. Some people respond to the reality by denying it. They aim for eternal life on earth and take any treatment that promises to prevent the inevitable. Others become depressed or anxious or turn to drink or drugs. Most of us, I think, take the realisation of the inevitability of death as a wake-up call suggesting that we had better get on with doing the things we wanted to do in life.

In her interview, Nuala sound like somebody whom that realisation only hit six weeks ago when she got her diagnosis of terminal cancer. She is trying to cope with the realisation and the reality at the same time, an enormous demand on any human being. In saying that, I realise that I am presuming a great deal and that I may be entirely wrong.

One of the ways we deny the reality of death is to expect other people to die with a smile on their lips. Nearly twenty years ago, Therese Brady, who was then director of post-graduate training in clinical psychology at University College Dublin, complained about the expectation that people should face the death in ways that everybody else approved of. She developed the bereavement counselling service for the Irish Hospice Foundation. People who were dying were expected to do so in line with the expectations of a society which had, she said, “outlawed distress.”

It seems to me that by outlawing distress we have denied dying people the right to talk about this most significant of events. How often is the person who is dying told, when they want to express their feelings about it, “Don’t be talking like that, shure you’ll outlive us all”? What does it feel like, I wonder, to have to put up with that sort of nonsense when you are trying to make sense of your own death?

We will all face death in our own different ways. What Nuala’s interview has done, I hope, is to give permission to those who wish, in the words of Dylan Thomas, to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” to go right ahead and do so regardless of how the rest of us feel about it.

I wish Nuala some comfort in her journey.


Gerry Kennedy said...

Upon deep reflection after listening to Ms. O'Faolain's interview on the subject of her "imminent" death from disease, I ask two questions:

1. Does she see how narcissistic, materialistic and selfish she sounds in the face of death to care more about her $1000.00 curtains than perhaps making amends to people she has wronged in her life through her own actions and words?

2. What will happen if, after all her sturm and drang, she does not succumb to her illness?

Ms. O'Faolain is a sorry character indeed and should be pitied, not exalted.

laurie said...

i am devastated to hear of nuala's disease. my wonderful older sister died of cancer, as did my dad. my sister was just as devastated, raged just as much. she put on a brave and cheery face for most of the world--her children, her husband, even her doctors.

but i heard her rage. her sorrow.

it is not narcissistic and materialistic to care about things like curtains; we are not all one thing, and we carry all kinds of contradictory feelings and desires within us always, whether we are dying or not.

(and what a strange and unkind judgment to have about a dying woman!)

and what will happen, Mr. Kennedy, if she does not die after all? my god. what a question.

what a question.

patrick said...

A 'strange and unkind comment'? Harsh and cold I would say... Do you bear a grudge against Nuala, Gerry?

Anonymous said...

As a Nurse and a person who has had a very close friend die of Cancer I think Nualla should be allowed to say how she truely feels about approaching Death.It takes guts to listen to a loved one speak about their fears and express their anger.No wonder it's a lonely time if all the people around you want to do is utter platitudes and think less of you for not being Cheery.

Padraig O'Morain said...

I agree very much with Anonymous that to be obliged to utter only platitudes when you really want to talk about the reality of your feelings about your own death is cruel. As for Gerry Kennedy's comments, well, I think he knows little about death and dying - perhaps one day he will know more and will reconsider his views.