What gets people talking about death in ways that make them feel more powerfully alive? Author Helena Dolny’s quest for an answer and belief that we need to talk about living and dying inspired an eight-year learning journey and resulted in Before Forever After, a fascinating and absorbing book that includes the stories of many ordinary people facing challenging circumstances as well as the likes of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, liberation struggle hero Joe Slovo and the iconic Nelson Mandela. The 57 stories in the book invite the reader to consider important questions. How do you want to live your life? Do you have secrets that might hurt loved ones following your death? What medical intervention do you want at the end of your life? What rituals matter to you?
What inspired you to write the book?
I wrote the book for my then 29-year-old-daughter, Tessa. She’d experienced a death in her circle and asked me if I had something to read that might help her feel more at ease with our inevitable mortality. Searching my personal library and online, I could not find the book that I wanted to offer her. I had a weekend that I was home alone, and her request played on my mind. On a whim I sat down to write the outline of the book I’d wish to give to her if it were on sale. That was the beginning!
How long did you take to write it?
Eight years, part-time, off and on, staccato. I have always loved writing, but I don’t earn a living from it. So it was mostly an after-work, weekend, hobby activiity – and a labour of love. But since August 2015, when I won a Rockefeller writing residency in Bellagio specifically to work on this book, I decided to “live skinny” and spend most of my time on the book and I temporarily shrunk my executive coaching business.
How would you describe it?
I hope it’s a book that will move your heart and spark conversations – a collection of more than 50 narrative non-fiction stories organised around nine themes. What’s extraordinary is that the stories are ordinary. These are our lives, yours and mine and the people that surround us. I did not search out the exceptional. I really wanted readers to be able to identify with the characters and draw parallels with their own lives.
What is the book’s primary message?
More talking: less suffering. That’s the primary message for me. Death is inevitable and our losing of those we love is a painful experience, but I believe I’ve witnessed people suffering even more because of conversations that hadn’t happened or weren’t concluded.
Who should read it?
Every single person who has reached the age of majority. Once you reach the age when you have to make decisions for yourself, then the book is relevant to you. How do you want to live? What attention are you giving to relationships as well as professional fulfillment? If anything untoward were to happen, have you left instructions about your end-of-life preferences – the disposal of your body parts, the rituals you’d like to be followed as people take their leave of you.
What do you hope that readers will take from it?
The book’s strong underlying message is a call to action to have conversations with yourself and others, to be decisive, to undertake some important paperwork.
The book ends with a set of nine questions, an invitation, “You’ve read all these peoples’ stories, now what about you?” On my website I’ll be providing an online workbook that people can go through in even more detail if they want.
Is talking about death not a depressing subject?
I haven’t found it depressing, otherwise the last eight years of my life would have been miserable. Whereas in fact they’ve been my happiest years to date. It’s true that some of the stories have made me weep, but feeling pain and sadness is part of our humanity and make us realise that we are very much alive. There’s a Lorca poem along the lines of: ‘There was a thorn in my heart. I could feel the pain. I took out the thorn. I couldn’t feel my heart.’
How do you encourage people to engage more readily with death as part of daily life?
That’s my quest. Writing the book is one contribution to that. I think there has to be a mindshift in society, which I believe is happening, and a mindshift in various professions. In a UK survey of 961 doctors, two thirds said they were not comfortable talking to their patients about death. Wow. That’s astounding. If your GP and the nurses can’t easily talk with you, that’s not good. Who else? The religious professionals, financial advisors, the lawyers who help you draft your will – if everyone of these professional had end-of-life conversation training in the curriculum, and if talking became part of the job description then this would really help change. There’s one story in the book about La Crosse in Wisconsin in the US where this talking has happened – it’s been a concerted effort since 1985 and it has paid off. Ninety five percent of people over the age of 18 have Advance Directives.
Has death been a constant in your life?
Death is a constant in all of our lives. As a child it was a backdrop, elderly neighbours, a friend of my parents. But in my twenties it moved to the forefront of my life, aggressively, because of apartheid. I worked with Ruth First, who I regarded as a mentor, and was in my office a few rooms away when she opened that letter bomb. I also did errands for the ANC’s Special Operations around this time and was very aware of the possible consequences. And then in my thirties a series of friends died from illness. We all have death happening around us all the time – the difference is how connected and close we are to the deceased.
Do you think it has lessons for all of us regardless of age?
Yes. Age is irrelevant. This a book for anyone in every part of the globe. I dream of the book being a bestseller, translated into many languages, that when I walk through an airport, wherever I am, I’ll spot it on the shelves, or see someone on the plane reading it. Part One of Before Forever After is called Living Life Alive and begins with Mary Oliver’s poem, A Summer Day, which she ends with a question, “How do you wish to spend your one wild and precious life?”
And we never know what age we will be when we might be present as someone we love is dying. Yesterday a woman phoned me to say she was sitting with her mother who she expected would have only a few hours to live, she asked me, “from your experience, what should I be doing at this time?” I think the stories in the book answer that question – the stories have some lessons in them – I deliberately chose stories that I thought offered learning.
What did you learn writing the book?
- Firstly, that I, personally, need to “do” less and “be” more! It’s very easy for me to get involved in doing practical things, or always busy being purposeful, so my personal learning is about the importance of being present versus being busy, and that on important occasions, “doing, means doing nothing, but rather being with and feeling the moment.” On family occasions and in the bush when there’s a special sighting, I think I take less photos than I used to, because I want to feel the intensity of that special moment and let my eyes imprint the visuals on my heart and mind rather than fidding with a camera getting the frame and the focus right.
- Secondly, I learnt more about “the joy factor” that you can be very ill, even immobile, but life will offer nuggets of joy that make you want to continue living. And that once these are gone, then there’s a readiness to go.
- Thirdly, I gained insight into elderliness and the different choices that people make about their lifestyle during this time which, for many, is a time of increasing fragility. This has helped me clarify my own thinking, should I be privileged to continue to live into elderliness.
Some of it is very personal – was it painful for you or was it cathartic?
I haven’t ever found writing cathartic. It’s a record of what I’m feeling at that particular point in time. And just as an LP vinyl record has grooves, I’ve found that writing sometimes etches those grooves more deeply, the re-remembering an event re-invokes the pain.
For instance, I did not find writing Banking On Change eased the painful experience of the circumstances of my departure from the Land Bank; I cried over and over again as I wrote. But yes, some of the writing of Before Forever After was painful: my writing of leaving my children, Tessa and Kyla in Bulawayo, my marrying Joe and my daughter Tessa’s response, the first year of bereavement, after Joe’s death, my accompaniment of my mother’s dying. But again, tears can be both salty and sweet. Salt in the wound being sharply painful as well as a bitter-sweet reminder of something gone, once precious, or sometimes tears of regret and shame, appropriately humbling, prompting the need of compassion and self-forgiveness towards a younger self who knew no better.
You are now an executive coach how did that influence the book?
The book is strongly influenced by the fact I’ve worked as an executive coach for the last 12 years. Firstly, the emphasis of the book is on how we choose to live, and if we take mortality seriously then what’s the impact of that on the shaping of our lives? Secondly I consulted with a wide range of people in coming up with nine sets of questions associated with the nine themes.
Coaches spend their working lives asking questions intended to prompt their clients to think, reflect and hopefully gain insight. There are many stories I did not include. They were good stories – but I had a list and interrogated each one, “what’s the point of including this story – what do you want readers to take away from it?”
And since completing the book, did the experience change your executive coaching style and content in any way?
No. In the work I do with executive clients who work in corporates, the brief is determined by the client. The agenda is theirs to determine, not mine.
I am however considering a separate, parallel activity, associated with the nine sets of questions, that perhaps readers want to complete those questions, and/or the more detailed online workbook and then have a coaching-debriefing session. I’m going to try this and see what interest there is.
What was one of the most moving anecdotes for you?
A difficult choice. But the story called, When Nick became Nicholas still makes me cry when I read it. I think its because its about a small sunny child suddenly taken ill and dying 18 months later. I can be more philosophical of deaths of the elderly with their long and well-lived lives, but a child, that’s a life unfulfilled; its parents expected a shared life, raising him to adulthood and that will now never happen.
It was a privilege to listen to people. I’m enormously grateful. I’m especially admiring of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. He encouraged me consistently and I have such deep appreciation for his way of being a leader, and here he is again, as he says, “more at the end than the beginning” of his life demonstrating personal leadership in his approach towards his own dying, and living his own truth as he says in his own words, “This taboo of not talking about dying needs to be challenged.”
Before Forever After is available at bookstores and via Amazon.