I heard the news this morning that Australian fantasy writer Sara Douglass died around 5am. It’s absolutely gutting news. I didn’t know Sara personally, but her work has been a part of my life for a long time, and not just her fiction.
Her fiction is fantastic in every sense of the word, and well regarded. She won many awards and accolades for her work, and rightly so. She was probably the first truly successful female Australian fantasy author (please correct me if I’m wrong on that) and I know she was incredibly influential to many other authors, men and women alike.
But it was her fight against cancer that really stood out for me. If you’re a fantasy fan, you absolutely should read her novels. If you’re a human being, you absolutely should read her words on terminal illness. Sara was an amazing role model for dealing with illness and her words on dying really rang true for me. I’ve experienced a lot of death in my time. I’ve seen terminal illness run its course in many forms and seen people die as teenagers and adults from a variety of terrible and debilitating conditions. When I read Sara’s blog post about dying, it hit me hard – it was just so fucking right. She opened with:
Many years ago I did an hour long interview on Adelaide radio (with Jeremy Cordeaux, I think, but my memory may be wrong). The interview was supposed to promote one of my recent publications, but for some reason we quickly strayed onto the subject of death and dying, and there we stayed for the entire hour. I proposed that as a society we have lost all ability to die well. Unlike pre-industrial western society, modern western society is ill at ease with death, we are not taught how to die, and very few people are comfortable around death or the dying. There is a great silence about the subject, and a great silence imposed on the dying. During the programme a Catholic priest called in to agree with the premise (the first and last time a Catholic priest and I have ever agreed on anything) that modern society cannot deal with death. We just have no idea. We are terrified of it. We ignore it and we ignore the dying.
She goes on to talk about how we praise people these days for dying without complaint, when really there should be shrieking and hair pulling.
When it comes to death and dying, we impose a dreadful silence on the dying lest they discomfort the living too greatly.
This is so true and really, fuck that. So often, people suffering greatly are doing their best not to discomfort those people who come to visit. When the terminally ill would rather be howling their grief at the stars or simply be left the fuck alone, they’re instead being brave for other people. Those people who visit now and then without really doing anything to help the dying.
I agree with Sara completely that the dying absolutely should not keep silent for the benefit of the un-dying.
I am tired of being made to feel guilty when I want to express my fear and anguish and grief.
I am tired of keeping silent.
And I’m so glad she didn’t. Everyone should read her words.
Read it. Digest it. She’s right.
And you know the best thing? Sara’s body of work will live on even though cancer took her from us way too soon. She was only 54, but her fantastic writing is eternal.
Vale, Sara Douglass. You were a role model and an inspiration, and may your words never fade.