In the west of Ireland, in County Mayo, where my mother lives, there’s a lovely tradition of attributing words or phrases to people. If they are dead, you add an acknowledgment after their name along the lines of “May the Lord have mercy on their soul.”
I love how this reignites the spirit of a deceased person you may or may not have known. You can build an entire sense of someone you never met from hearing their expressions. And for those who knew them, that person can live again in the utterance of those sayings.
From a young age, I’ve had to contemplate death. Early childhood loss of a parent will do that to you. My father died when I was 6. Since then, I’ve been trying to understand the cumulative nature of grief. The resounding question of my life has been, Where do the dead go in our imaginations? Increasingly as I age, I’ve wondered where I will go in people’s imaginations. Will anyone remember me? Will I still matter to anyone once I am dead?
After all, as time passes, people can become the subject of their exit. My friend who was hit by a car. My friend who had an asthma attack. My friend who took her life. After the pandemic we will also have to decide how we will talk about the lives of those who were taken by Covid-19: Will the lives they lived be overshadowed by the fact that it was Covid-19 that extinguished them? Will their years of living be reduced to the name of a virus that wiped them out in a matter of days or weeks?
These questions confounded me even before the pandemic. Five years ago this month, one of my oldest friends died by suicide (though it is so tempting to say that she “died suddenly”). A lifetime of loss would not prepare me for the way this buckled me in half. I would see my friend in the T-shirts my son put on, every time I picked up a tea towel or made a cup of tea, because this friend was so incredibly generous, she wallpapered my entire life with that generosity and love. It wasn’t about the objects as much as the thought that at the time she picked out the tea towel or the many tea tins that line my cupboard, she did so because I was on her mind. I was alive for her even though I was absent. In that moment she chose to remember me. How can I return this gesture now, when she is no longer here?
In a way, my friend’s endless generosity has kept her alive for me, but inevitably, whenever I experience small mercies or achievements or special moments, her devastating absence is felt as large as it ever was. I can become overwhelmed by the thought that I failed as a friend, since I never sufficiently demonstrated how important she was to me and now it is too late.
My beloved friend was not just generous; she was an extremely effective and reliable health care professional with boundless empathy and patience who did not take shortcuts. I know this because I watched her work through lunches and weekends to fill out charts, and rarely take sick days. I know she was someone who saw and heard patients in all the ways we need to be heard and seen.
In time, I decided that the only way for me to consistently keep this particular person alive in my imagination was to try to do something that would put me into the precise spirit of who she was. But what that something would be was not yet clear.
As it happened, while researching my novel “Bina,” which explores female friendship and the right to die, I began an email exchange with Dr. Sue Hughson, who was volunteering for Dying With Dignity Canada. She asked if I would be interested in becoming a volunteer witness for the organization. It seemed that this would be something my friend might do and that I might be able to keep her spirit alive by being a compassionate witness to others in their dying. I agreed.
Medical assistance in dying or MAID, which was previously known as voluntary euthanasia, is legal in Canada. All applicants require two witnesses to sign the paperwork to commence the application process to MAID. As volunteer witnesses, we cannot be involved in the care of the dying or be beneficiaries of their wills. We go in pairs. We read aloud (or have patients read) a series of statements confirming that they understand the nature of the request they are making, that they have had all their treatment options explored and explained to them and that they are free to change their minds at any time in the process.
The visit is generally not long — roughly 20 to 40 minutes — yet in those moments we enhance our humanity by helping strangers’ requests for their end-of-life choice be heard and considered. “Choice” is an important word: I have never been in any situation where I was in any doubt that the person had absolute clarity and full understanding of what they wanted, because if I had been, I would not have been able to sign the form. The next step involves assessment by two doctors independent of each other to determine whether the patient qualifies for MAID. Once the form is completed, there’s usually palpable relief from the patient and always enormous gratitude to us for volunteering our time.
In such brief interactions there can be unexpected, profoundly moving exchanges and experiences. There can be laughter and humor. There is nothing I have seen more beautiful than patients supported at this moment by their siblings, children or friends, nothing more loving and compassionate than family members or dependents who are struggling visibly through silent tears, yet stay to support and comfort their loved ones.
Occasionally parents become aware their son or daughter is distressed and spontaneously give a soliloquy to all present; they announce that their child is a good son or a good daughter and plead gently, “Don’t be sad. It is time.” Once a man asked us to turn on Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mama, I’m Coming Home,” and we rocked out to it around his bed.
Every time I have the privilege of witnessing in this way, I feel the presence of my beloved friend in that room with me. Her spirit, her patience and her willingness to hear people live in this act. Every day it’s a struggle for me to imagine she is with us no more, and I find myself pondering, “Where can she be? How can she be gone? How is this possible?” I have concluded she lives now in my ability to imagine her right there with me in the room when I witness, for she was brave and nonjudgmental, kind and honest, warm and supportive, which is the truth of what takes place in these interactions.
Recently, I decided to take a full-time job at a nearby lab receiving and processing specimens for coronavirus tests. At the end of the first week, I was exasperated and exhausted and feeling quite useless. I am older than most of the workers, and slower and more easily flustered. The one thing I held on to was the knowledge that my friend would have been proud of me for working in that lab.
So this is where the dead go in our imaginations: They continue to live with us in the moments when we are sad and terrified. They cheer for us. They give us unbelievable strength and the courage we lack to carry on in situations. They coax us through. They lead us where we need to be, to experience the joy and capability that was them. They who have been with us in life manage to teach us how and where in death we can listen for them and find their voices and essence again.
Anakana Schofield is the author of the novels “Malarky,” “Martin John” and, most recently, “Bina: A Novel in Warnings,” which explores female friendship and the right to die. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
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