Sunday 4 December 2016

Katie Byrne: Why we need to talk about dying before it's too late

Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30

Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne
Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne

Five years ago I wrote a piece for this newspaper group on the dearth of 'romantic interest' roles for women of a certain age in Hollywood.

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Women in their 50s and 60s are still sexually potent, I wrote, but in cinematic terms they are portrayed as the mother-of-the-bride or satirised as the highly-sexed cougar.

I received a call from my editor a few days after the article appeared. There had been a complaint. A woman - let's call her Betty - telephoned the office to tell them that she had taken umbrage to the article.

Betty wanted it to be known that it wasn't just women in their 50s and 60s that still had it. She was 92 years of age and she very much still had it, thank you very much.

"Would you mind calling her?" said my editor. "She specifically asked to speak to you."

Betty didn't read me the riot act when I called. In fact, she barely even mentioned the article. "I'd like to invite you to lunch," she said. "You can meet the 'geriatric circle' and we'll get you in on the half-price carvery deal."

The 'geriatric circle', as I discovered a few days later, was comprised of two men and two women. Betty was the oldest and she wore her age like a medal, even if her friends told her to stop showing off about it.

The other three were in their late 80s and while they were a little bemused by my attendance, I got the impression that they were long past the point of questioning Betty's modus operandi. They were also long past the point of small talk. It was all meat, no veg, with this lot.

They asked me if I had ever been in love and assured me that true love exists. Well, all except for Jane, who insisted that monogamy was a myth... but I wasn't to listen to her because she was "far too Bohemian".

They told me about their regrets and the countries they wished they had visited. At the time I was flirting with the idea of moving to LA. "Go!" they said. "Just go! You won't regret it."

To be frank, I suspected that Betty had brought along three of her heaviest hitters to prove to me that life doesn't end at 60.

I soon learnt that these three were all the friends she had left. The rest of them had passed or were living out their last days in nursing homes.

One of the men had recently lost his beloved wife. "I prayed to God that he would take her before me," he said. "Because I just knew she wouldn't be as strong if I went first." And then he started to cry.

Betty passed him a tissue; the other man held his hand and I said the only thing that I could say: "You'll see her again."

In some circles a statement like this would be considered a trite platitude or a spiritual cliché. Here it was met with simmering silence.

They stared at me with a gaze that suggested this was a life or death situation. And I suppose it was. It's one thing talking about the afterlife when you have your whole life ahead of you, quite another when you don't have long left.

"How do you know?" one of them eventually asked.

"I just know," I answered.

"But how?" asked another. "You seem very convinced. You must know something. You've obviously had an experience."

It was here that our conversation evolved into the meaning of it all and it's here that I'll get to my point.

Those that get to Betty's age are veterans and we don't offer them enough support as they approach their last and hardest battle.

We owe them more outlets to discuss death in a reflective and therapeutic setting; a space where they can discuss their mental health as well as their physical health and where there is less form-signing and more hand-holding.

As a society, we owe them more sophisticated conversation on the subject. Burial or cremation? Does anyone really give a sh*t?

We tell ourselves that we're confronting death by asking this question when actually we're just hiding from the terrifying thought that we don't know how we got here and we don't know where we're going.

The four people I met that day had devoted, loving children, but can children provide this support in a society that hasn't yet evolved to a place where it can talk openly about death and grief and what awaits us on the other side?

They had excellent doctors too but at this stage of the life journey the heart needs more than an ECG.

There is a 'death doula' model emerging in the US and the UK. Typically a doula supports a woman and her family as she prepares to bring new life into the world. The death doula supports people as they prepare to leave the world.

It's a progressive, holistic movement and I wholeheartedly support it.

Betty died a couple of years later. I hope I was right.

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