Books & Media

Books & Media

Documentary Film




The Intimacy of Death and Dying, co-authored by Zenith Virago, Claire Leimbach & Trypheyna McShane.  (2009 Allen & Unwin.)

Death and dying unite us all in a common experience. It is a unique and personal journey for those who are dying, and their loved ones, it is a natural and sacred process.

People who are dying or caring for the dying, may feel isolated or feel as if no-one understands what they are going through.  The Intimacy of Death and Dying contains simple, practical and helpful guidance for those dealing with any aspect of death, inter-spaced with personal first-hand, honest, sensitive, courageous, and sometimes messy  accounts of different aspects of death, such as:

  • Being with the dying person, at home or in hospital
  • Caring for an partner, parent or friend
  • Loss of babies, children and teenagers
  • Sudden accidents, or when someone ends their own life
  • Well-being and caring for carers, family and friends
  • Being involved as much as you want to, or doing it all yourself
  • Creating a more appropriate ceremony or marking the anniversary of a death.

The Intimacy of Death and Dying offers comfort and guidance for sudden and expected death, and works towards having a healthier bereavement. Sharing moments of intense love, sadness, joy, kindness, even laughter – and the more conscious we are of death, the better we can handle our loss.

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** David Leser’s eloquent words at the book launch at the Byron Bay Writers Festival,

……Somerset Maugham, one of my very favourite writers, said once:

“Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.”

Somerset Maugham wrote some very wise things in his life but that wasn’t one of them. Like life and living, no two people die the same way and not only is it rarely dull or dreary, guess what? At some point in our lives we’re all going to have something to do with it.

I think one of the best quotes I’ve ever read on death was from another extraordinary writer – Marcel Proust – and it went to the whole question of death’s uncertainty.

“We may indeed,” he wrote, “say that the hour of death is uncertain, but when we say this we think of that hour as situated in a vague and remote expanse of time; it does not occur to us that it can have any connection with the day that has already dawned and can mean that death may occur this very afternoon, so far from uncertain, this afternoon whose timetable, hour by hour, has been settled in advance. One insists on one’s daily outings, so that in a month’s time one will have had the necessary ration of fresh air; one has hesitated over which coat to take, which cabman to call; one is in the cab, the whole day lies before one, short because one must be back home early, as a friend is coming to see one; one hopes it will be as fine again tomorrow; and one has no suspicion that death, which has been advancing within one on another plane, has chosen precisely this particular day to make its appearance.”

So, yes, this is a book about death and dying. About death that catches us unawares, poleaxes us in its devastating suddenness and loss, or comes to us way too late, after way too much suffering.

It is a book that transports us into a land called Grief and it is a book about the trust and the tenderness and the terrible beauty implicit in death – for those dying and for those left behind.

Heart-breaking deaths, shocking deaths, angry deaths, reckless deaths, ugly, confronting deaths, chance deaths, accidental deaths, high speed, out of control deaths, defiant deaths, premature deaths, long-overdue deaths, surrendering, gracious, accepting, sublime, fearless deaths.

Deaths in nursing homes, deaths in hospices, deaths at birth, deaths at home, deaths in the air, deaths on the ground, deaths in the river, deaths at work, deaths by one’s own hand, deaths in a spa (yes that’s you Tony), deaths just before marriage – and what a beautiful story that one is: a dying woman who weds the love of her life the day before she dies. And the celebration of life, of her life, that took place around her as she drifted towards the Big Sleep.

Deaths commemorated, deaths celebrated, deaths consecrated, and deaths foretold as in the case of Jodi and Adam Osborne’s first baby girl, Indigo who, it appears, spoke to Jodi from the womb to say that she would not be making it this time, except in spirit. Today would have been her 13th birthday.

“Indigo is dead,” Jodi writes in the book, “but our daughter is not just a memory. She is our firstborn daughter, a loved, acknowledged member of our family. She shines every minute of every day in the sun and the stars, in the every air we breathe. She has changed our lives and perceptions forever.”

There are stories here rich in scope and variety – a woman who loses her mother to cancer. The wake with the dying person still very much alive, the death of the new-born, the death of the friend, the husband, the wife, the mother, the father, the child. How unutterably sad and unbearably wise to read about the 9 year-old girl, Naomi, who died after a lifelong battle with cancer and the obscene number of bone marrow transplants her small body had had to endure, and the note she left under her pillow for her parents the night before she departed:

“If you two look after each other as well as you have looked after me over these years, you’ll both be fine.”

The death of the young lamb and the death of the old sheep. Death in all its heart-breakingly honest guises.

And, yes, the mess of death, the uncertainty of death, the rage and fight against death, the humility required in the face of death, the indignity of death, the intimacy of death, the inspiration of death, the universality of death, the inevitability and sacredness of death … As Francis Bacon said: “it is as natural to die as to be born.”

Those last ragged breaths that we all eventually must take.

There is also practicable advice between these pages for when someone is dying or has died – how do we know when death is near, who do we call, what arrangements do we make, and with whom. Proof of death, registration of death, what finances to put in place, what last wishes to honour, what power of attorney, what guardianship, what legal paperwork, what rituals, if any, or healing ceremonies to observe, what perfumes to fill the room with, what music to send soaring through the house in the fading of the light, how to help the children with their grief – how to best serve them and include them and honour them.

And then how to see a person off into the next realm – if by cremation, where to scatter or house the ashes, if by burial, what sort of coffin, what timbers, what plot to purchase, which organs, if any, to be donated, where to keep the body before it is cremated or buried, how to transport it to the funeral.

Importantly this book also honours the hospice workers who care for the dying. It acknowledges the special calling of those who work with the dying. The depth of their connection and caring, all the unsung ways they help bring dignity to those going towards the other side.

This is a book that demystifies death, that makes death more accessible. It shows us how much death and dying have to teach us about life and living, how much it forces us to think about the randomness of death, the age-old Socratic questions of how we should live, what ought one do with one’s life, what constitutes a good life, a meaningful life. How we might surrender into the sorrow of death and the exquisite, rapturous beauty of it too. How much honouring can get done in the face of the dying, right down low in the vale of tears but also up high, on the peaks of laughter where all the blessings of life can be fully viewed and shared.

Vanessa Gorman, who, lost her baby at birth says it beautifully in the pages of this book: “When it all comes down to it, to love deeply is to expose oneself to the possibility of profound loss. The deeper we love, the deeper we grieve. But this is life’s challenge: to open ourselves wide and embrace everything life hurls at us. To smile at our destiny.”

I, therefore, commend Claire Leimbach, Trypheyna McShane and Zenith Virago, my friend and the grand-daughter of a grave-digger, for this book The Intimacy of Death and Dying and it gives me great pleasure in declaring it officially launched.

But as it begins so it end and I would like to finish on a note struck by another significant Mark Twain:

“Let us endeavour so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”