A healthy approach to life and death
People who face the reality of death in their work testify to its impact. “I don’t live like every day is my last but working in this field, you tend to prevaricate less and decide what is really important,” says Dr Regina McQuillan, palliative medicine consultant at St Francis Hospice, Raheny. “I don’t think in terms of long-term plans because I realise long-term plans often don’t work out. So if there is something I want to do now, I try to do it rather than put it off to an indefinite date.”
McQuillan, who has worked for 20 years in hospice care, says one of the great regrets of the dying is a failure to deal with broken relationships. “I often encounter people who have this idea that they will deal with bad situations in their life, or achieve some sort of reconciliation in the future, but then it becomes too late. My attitude is you either want to fix it or you don’t want to fix it.
“I think people can get an insight in different ways. You don’t have to work in palliative care, although for me it has had that impact.
“People do get stuck in particular ways and thinking about these issues can help. The idea that you should be contemplating death is tied up for many people in terms of salvation and the notion: How is it going to affect you in the afterlife? I would say: How is it going to affect the life that you have?”
Being faced with death on a daily basis has also had a profound effect on Freddie Maguire, managing director of Massey Brothers funeral directors. “It has made me more empathetic and more understanding of our vulnerability and frailty as human beings,” says the former accountant, who has attended “thousands” of funerals in the past 40 years.
“We have this life to lead and being of service to other people is basically the purpose of life. I’ve learnt that from this work but also spiritual teachings. There are a lot of clergy and other spiritual people working with us.”
Maguire detects an increased willingness to think about mortality, and cites the “hundreds” of bookings Massey now has for its prepaid funeral service. “It’s gaining momentum.” He also notes a shift in emphasis towards celebratory rather than sombre events, some of them incorporating sporting or musical themes.
Kay agrees that talking about death is no longer taboo – unlike “30 years ago when you did not mention the C word” – but discussion can be superficial and “I think some people are still afraid of talking about emotional issues. People who make bland or cliched statements at funerals may feel uncomfortable around expressing condolences; they just don’t have the language to express how they feel.”
D’Souza also reports a type of evasion. “As the erosion of organised religion and philosophy, once the mainstay of a forum for discussion on the meaning of life and death, continues to gather pace, where and how do we find a safe place to talk about living and dying? If parents cannot hold this reflective space within the family setting, where does the next generation attempt to grapple with death and make meaning of their lives?”