On death and dying

30 March 2015

A few years ago, just before Easter, a much loved aunt passed away. She had been sick for some time and gravely so, and yet I held out hope because it was all I could do at the time.

In the months beforehand, I'd done a lot of thinking and a bit of research - if you could call it that. I looked to podcasts, films and books to try and help me think about death, and conversely what it meant to be alive.

I've continued to do so and today, I'd like to share some of the stories that I've found particularly insightful, challenging and comforting.

Tender - a documentary

My friend Sean discovered this documentary last year when it screened on the ABC and quickly recommended it. Tender follows a community group in Port Kembla that is trying to set up its own funeral business, giving community members the chance to care for their own in their last days and immediately after death. A way into the project, it becomes clear that one of their own is dying and the film and project take on a whole new depth.

Living with a terminal illness: Keith and Helen Bunker's story

This interview series is astounding because it unfolds over months, as man in his mid-forties shares how he's doing both physically and mentally after his cancer becomes terminal. Keith Bunker recorded regular conversations with radio host James O'Loughlin and together the pair documented the last seven months of his life. There are moments in this series where you forget Keith is sick at all, and then interviews where he is struggling to breathe and speak. It's a remarkable series, with Keith's wife Helen recording the final instalment after her husband passes away.

The cancer updates explores a very similar story of hope and decline for one Australian family, only it's told through the eyes of a wife and carer who takes to email to send regular and frank updates to friends and family about how her husband Russell is doing.

Janelle Chalmer on Conversations with Richard Fidler

Janelle is an embalmer who has spent much of her career working in funeral homes, where she prepares bodies for viewings, burials and cremations. She is incredibly empathetic and reveals how she will sometimes speak to bodies as she is working on them and will even read relevant obituaries if she finds them. In this interview Janelle talks about how many people struggle to reconcile the person they knew with the body that remains.

Can We Talk About Something More Pleasant? Roz Chast, a memoir

Roz Chast, a long-time comic illustrator for The New Yorker, chronicles the real-life decline of her elderly parents George and Elizabeth in this graphic novel. It's an honest account that explores what it means to die of old age and what it takes to care for your parents. Along with the comic, Chast includes photographs from her childhood and what she finds as she cleans out her parent's apartment.

The Spare Room, Helen Garner

In a book that bridges fiction and non-fiction, Helen Garner writes about a friend who is dying of cancer who comes to stay in her spare room as she pursues alternative treatment in Melbourne. It captures the physical struggles of cancer, from the sweat soaked sheets to the fiery confrontations that occur between Helen and her sick friend. The way death is described in this book is particularly powerful and almost triumphant.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

I am midway through this book, in which Joan Didion describes the night of her husband's death and her first year as a widow. At one point she becomes aware that she remains ever hopeful that her husband John will return. The hospitalisation of her only daughter amplifies her grief as she remembers episodes of family life and marriage at the smallest of prompts. While these reminders are painful for Joan, they also illuminate the moments, rituals and places that have shaped her life, and no longer appear inconsequential or mundane. She also explores how death and illness are explained medically and how bamboozling that can be, as well as how memory becomes both heightened and distorted in mourning.

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