If you are a regular listener to Shelagh Fogarty’s phone-in programme on LBC Radio, you’ll know that issues surrounding death and dying often come up. In particular, she gets a lot of calls are from those who want to see a change in the law to allow assisted dying and euthanasia.
Shelagh speaks to these callers very sensitively but she wants to see a much broader conversation that focuses on living and dying well. She is part of a big Catholic family with roots in rural Ireland. Cherishing life, caring tenderly for the dying and remembrance are key to her thinking.
This made her the perfect chair for The Art of Dying Well’s recent live event with actor and director, Greg Wise and the palliative care pioneer, Kathryn Mannix.
Before going the stage, Shelagh shared her thoughts with the director of The Art of Dying Well, Maggie Doherty. Below we reproduce their conversation.
What does dying well mean to you?
From my perspective as a radio presenter who talks to people a lot about this subject, I think that dying well makes me go immediately to the idea of having a really live conversation about how we die and how we talk about death.
What worries me, increasingly, is that whenever we talk about elderly people and the pressures on social care, the conversation really quickly turns to assisted dying and euthanasia. It really horrifies me that this should happen in a conversation that is not about people who are literally at the end of their life but people who are in the last season of their life.
So, for me, it’s about making sure that as many versions as possible of that conversation take place with dying well being the ultimate aim.
Have you cared for a dying loved one?
Yes I have, twice. First of all, my dad. He had cancer and from diagnosis to death was about nine months. I’m from a large family so we all cared for him and, of course, the NHS cared for him as well.
I would say he had a good death and that he did die well. He was in a hospice and he was very tenderly and very respectfully cared for. It was wonderful also that we had very easy access all of the time.
My dad was a smoker and I thought it was lovely that they put him in a room with another smoker and allowed them to smoke. If you are in hospital, clearly that’s not going to happen. But in the hospice the attitude was ‘we’re going to let these people live until they die’.
Watching someone you love dying is inevitably a very, very hard experience. I found that all those hard edges are softened by the help you get from the people who love you, and who love the person who is dying. And, of course, there’s the help you get from professionals as well.
From a spiritual perspective, in the final hour of my dad’s life when he was very clearly dying, I felt then, and I can still very clearly remember, that we were all held up by something in that process. It was an extraordinarily hallowed space. We were in the midst of this awful, shocking moment – it was my first close-up experience of losing somebody I love – yet I felt supported by something in the midst of it all.
The other person I cared for was my Aunt Sheelagh – I’m named after her. She was brilliant in life and she was brilliant in death: bright pink nails, bright pink toenails, perfectly dyed hair. She was full of beans and full of life. Even as a little girl, she and I were buddies. She didn’t have children and I was very happy to be a quasi-daughter figure in that last year of her life. She made caring for her very easy. I remember the day she came out from a consultation with her doctors having been told there would be no more chemo and that she’d reached the end of treatment. First she said ‘Let’s go to Harrods’. Then she changed her mind and said ‘Let’s go to Osborne and Little on the Kings Road and buy some really expensive wallpaper’. We howled with laughter because she did need some new wallpaper.
It was a great example of living despite the message she had just had from the doctors. And then when her death came it was an overnight vigil, quite different from my father’s death. I’ve learned that you are changed these experiences. Equally, each death almost changes your understanding of death because each person’s approach and each person’s experience of it is different. My attitude to death and my sense of it changes each time I lose someone.
How has death marked your life?
I was very close to my dad. The loss of him felt like losing one of the foundations of my life. I’ve heard people say you don’t get over it you get around it. For me, that’s very true. You feel less intensely grief-stricken as time goes on but the loss is always the same.
My Auntie Sheelagh, in life and in death, was courageous, courageous, courageous. So I try to be courageous.
And I lost a close friend last year, Rachel Bland, who produced the podcast, ‘You, Me and the Big C’ with her friends. The loss of her taught me very much about the here and now because she was so young when she died and left behind a very young child. The value of a mother’s love cannot be measured, but, awful though it is for her son to have lost his mum, he has inherited hundreds of aunts and uncles in the process. There are blessings in this situation.
How do you remember your loved ones?
I remember my dad and Auntie Sheelagh in lots and lots in different ways. They pop into my head all the time.
But in terms of formal remembrance with my dad, every year, on or around his birthday and, on or around the anniversary of his death we go to Ireland where ashes are interred. We will probably go to Mass together and we’ll go to the grave a number of times and, in between, we’ll go to lots of nice Irish pubs, get drunk and talk about him.
With my Auntie Sheelagh, I was in charge of clearing her house. I took my time and invited everybody who had a connection to her to come and take something. Now, when I go to the houses of siblings and friends, we will use the crockery that belongs to her and we will talk about her.
I have become friends with two of her best friends. When they want to meet up, they say: ‘I need coffee with a Shelagh’. I’m a pretty poor substitute. Sheelagh will always be the original. She was pretty unforgettable.