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IN THE MIDST OF LIFE WE ARE IN DEATH: Death is not an easy subject to discuss, says Trevor Laffan. Picture: iStock
IN THE MIDST OF LIFE WE ARE IN DEATH: Death is not an easy subject to discuss, says Trevor Laffan. Picture: iStock
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I’m in awe of those facing death who keep calm and carry on

DEATH is something that comes to us all and even though we can’t avoid it, it’s not a subject we like to talk about.

Thankfully, I have no idea of what it’s like to die, and I have never been told that the end is near either, but since it’s inevitable, maybe we should put more of an effort into preparing ourselves for that kind of news.

I will have to face that prospect at some point, but I’m fine for now and not in any great hurry to be told that I have an appointment with the Grim Reaper.

I have, however, been in the company of people who have received bad news and while it’s a serious situation for them, being a spectator is an uncomfortable place to be as well.

I have no idea how I would react to that prognosis, but I doubt that I would cope as bravely as some, and I include my own family members in that list.

A friend of mine, Deena Walsh, died a few years ago. She knew she was terminally ill and she was prepared for what lay ahead of her, but she put up an amazing fight. Even when she knew there was nothing more that could be done for her, she remained calm and good humoured. She was very practical about what was to come, and she made sure she was prepared.

One day, she asked me if I would deliver her eulogy when the time came. This was a first for me and it shook me a bit.

She told me she was going to be cremated and she wanted me to say something in the crematorium. She also said that I had to make the congregation laugh and if I didn’t achieve that, I would have failed her. No pressure.

That’s not an easy discussion to have with someone, but she made it seem like an everyday, normal chat. The idea that I had to deliver a light-hearted eulogy to her grieving friends and family in a crematorium was setting a challenge, but she thought it was great.

We were driving to the CUH another day and she turned to me and, without batting an eyelid, she asked me how the eulogy was coming along. I told her to stop talking and I tried to change the topic of conversation, but she wouldn’t have it.

She told me that I should get a move on because time was running out.

What do you say to someone in that situation?

When we arrived at the hospital, a staff member she had come to know, greeted her and asked her how she was getting on?

In typical Deena fashion, she said; “Well, considering that I’m dying, I’m not too bad I suppose.”

Deena showed amazing courage in the way she dealt with her prognosis and I have no idea how she managed it.

My father, mother and sister were also strong and calm in how they coped with the news of their impending deaths, which suggests to me that there is a kind of acceptance that comes over people, which should be reassuring for the rest of us who have yet to travel that road.

But, while receiving that news is difficult, delivering it can’t be easy either — although the doctors I saw in action on each occasion, did a great job. They were very compassionate and patient but got the message across at the same time.

Breaking news to a family member of the death of a loved one is something I do have experience of and that’s not easy either.

There was a story that was regularly told to young gardaí as an example of how not to break bad news to a family.

The scene was somewhere on the west coast of Ireland. There had been an accident at sea and a small craft sank with the loss of all hands. The local garda in a small village was sent up to break the news to a local woman that her husband was missing, presumed drowned.

A storm was raging, and the rain was pouring down while the wind was howling. When he got to the house he was banging on the front door, but there was no reply. Just as he was about to give up and leave, an elderly lady opened an upstairs window and stuck her head out.

The garda asked her a couple of times if she was Mrs Quinn, but she couldn’t hear him above the noise of the wind.

So, he cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted up to her. 

“Are you the widow Quinn?” he asked.

“Indeed, I’m not,” she said. “My husband’s at sea.”

The garda shouted back up to her: “Well if he is, he’s at the bottom of it.”

The first guy who told me this story swore it was true. Since then, many more have claimed to have been present on the night and witnessed it, in which case there must have been some crowd standing outside that window.

I found myself in similar situations during my previous life, but I like to think that I handled them a bit better.

There’s no easy way to break that kind of news to somebody. It’s going to hurt whatever way you go about it, but you do your best and try to be as sensitive as possible.

The sight of a garda coming up the driveway can be unnerving at the best of times, and I was always aware that simply calling to a house to ask for directions could cause heart failure for the occupants.

Delivering bad news doesn’t get any easier, no matter how many times you do it.

Death is not an easy subject.