The art of letting go

September 3, 2018

One of the biggest challenges we face in life is the imminent passing of a loved one. I am inspired by, and in awe of, the creative ways in which people confront this.

When the late Carnegie Medal-winning children’s author Siobhan Dowd was dying from breast cancer in 2007, she chose to write about a Yew tree and a 13-year-old boy called Conor whose mother is dying from the same disease.

Dowd died before she could finish A Monster Calls and her notes were passed to fellow award-winning children’s writer Patrick Ness. He wrote the novel and then the searing play of the same title, which premiered at the Old Vic theatre to standing ovations and five-star reviews. Bruno Wang Productions was honoured to support this inspiring production.

No one in Conor’s life will talk honestly about his mother’s imminent death. She herself gives him false hopes about her treatment. So Conor imagines the worst, which is a child’s way when they are kept in a state of ignorance or denial about the chronic illness of a loved one.

Conor wishes for an end to the secrecy, lies and emotional pain and this makes him feel guilty. He loves his mother, and fears losing her, but no one, not even his grandmother or his all-but-estranged father, give him the opportunity to talk about his fears.

The tree monster that comes calling at the same time every night – 12.07am – is a paternal figure of demonic intensity and ruthless love.

His purpose is to enable Conor to own up to his fears and, in doing so, be freed of them. His fear is OK. Wanting his anguish to end is OK. They do not mean he doesn’t love his mother.

Finding a way forward

Death, for so many of us, is our greatest fear. The ability to discuss it helps bring wisdom and acceptance. However, it’s easier said than done.

“Normally we do not like to think about death. We like to think about life,” says Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. “Why reflect on death?” But he goes on to suggest that preparing for death can enable each of us “to face the truth of your self”.

Facing your fear of being left behind when a loved one is dying is not easy.

Often, when people are dying, they hold on to life because their family and friends are not ready to let them go. To do so requires acceptance of death.

At the end of her life, my grandmother was in a coma. The doctors informed us that risky surgery could be performed but it had a small chance of success and would most likely leave her in a vegetative state. Or we could let nature take its course.

One family member said: “Even if there is a one per cent chance, we cannot give up trying.” But another family member feared that my grandmother could be imprisoned in her own body and suffering in silence.

At the end, the family surrendered and within hours my grandmother passed away peacefully.

It’s as if there is a spiritual agreement whereby those who are dying hold on to life not for themselves but for us – the ones who remain.

In the event of the imminent death of a loved one, Buddhism asks of us not to cry but instead to be at peace. We should send positive thoughts and good wishes, mindful that a person’s last moments of consciousness determine where they go in the next life.

In A Monster Calls, teenage Conor is afraid of losing his mother and she cannot tell him she is about to die because she does not want to be lost to him.

She eventually dies – at 12.07am, the very time the monster used to come calling. The message is powerful: her death was going to happen. Before it does, mother and son must reach a point of acceptance.

Enduring love

It is natural to fight death, to “rage against the dying of the light,” as the poet Dylan Thomas so famously wrote.

In Milkshakes and Morphine: A Memoir of Love and Loss, critically acclaimed author Genevieve Fox receives a diagnosis of cancer but is unable to tell her two young sons. Her own mother died from cancer when she was a little girl, shortly after her father’s death. Like Conor, she cannot put into words her worst fear: in her case, that she may be lost to her sons just as her parents were lost to her. If she speaks of it, it might come true. So she decides to keep her dark secret under wraps.

Only after she gets a positive prognosis and the hope of a cure does she break the bad news to her sons.

In the end, she is cured. But she learns that the maternal love she feared would perish with her own passing, sustains. She has an epiphany: love endures. Should there be a recurrence of her cancer, she feels more equipped to accept her own passing.

It is often said that it is good to talk, but talking about death is hard to do. To break this silence, more than 4,000 death cafés (inspired by a Swiss model) have been founded in the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom. The aim is to help people become more open about death. In informal settings, visitors discuss questions such as: what makes for a good death?

It is a subject suitable for dinner-table conversation, according to cultural and social activist and TEDMED speaker Michael Hebb. In his forthcoming book, Let’s Talk About Death (Over Dinner), Hebb looks at how we might all have end-of-life conversations in our day-to-day lives. These are conversations he wishes he’d had with his own father before his passing.

“The only certainty in life is that we will all die,” says end-of-life specialist nurse Adrienne Betteley of Macmillan Cancer Support. “What is less certain is where, and what experience we will have when it happens. It’s only by talking that we can agree what is really important to us, and put plans in place to make that happen.”

Harvard divinity graduate and hospice chaplain Kerry Egan has written a bestselling memoir, On Living, about her conversations with the dying. She says: “People would be surprised to know that hospice patients aren’t nearly as afraid of dying as you think they are.” Those who are in their prime, by contrast, often have “a real fear and horror of death”.

I imagine those in their prime usually have many unfulfilled desires and ambitions. Dying represents violent loss and deprivation. But perhaps hospice patients close to the end of life have, by a process of elimination, recognised what is truly essential in life and understand the art of letting go.

Accepting death in many ways is honouring life. It helps us view life from the end instead of the beginning. We learn from different perspectives what life means to us and how we could live and create consciously without regrets.
Bruno Wang, founder of Bruno Wang Productions