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'My family and I have had many conversations about my impending death'

Wendy has terminal cancer.

I WAS IN a very good place, I felt very well. I was a very happy wife, mother and granny. My only trivial concerns in those days were probably my wonky knee, my double chins and many failed diets.

That was in September 2009. Six months later Wendy Coughlan was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. A mammogram the previous November had shown no cause for concern.

Wendy, from Greystones, said that finding out the cancer had already spread into her intestine and hip was a “devastating shock”.

She said she thought she was going to die, but “not without a fight”.

wendy new Wendy Source: Screengrab/YouTube.com

Her treatment went “very well for the first three years” but then the cancer continued to spread, taking its toll on Wendy.

At this time she began to think a lot more about her mortality and what she wanted when she dies.

My family and I have actually had many conversations about my impending death.

She notes that, from her wicker coffin to other aspects of her funeral, she knows “with certainty that anything I’ve asked for will be carried out by the people that love me most”.

Think Ahead

Wendy and her daughter Helen are ambassadors for the Irish Hospice Foundation‘s Think Ahead initiative. It encourages people to take the time to put in writing what they want to happen when they die.

Source: Irish Hospice/YouTube

Speaking at the IHF’s conference ‘Dying to Talk – Conversations about Death and Dying in Ireland’ at Dublin Castle yesterday, Wendy said she understands how difficult it can be to open up to your family about your last wishes.

I completely understand how daunting it must be for people who are facing death to try and open up and talk to their families about their impending death because the most important thing is you don’t want to upset your family.

However, she says “the opposite has been the case” in her experience.

Talking with my family has freed me up from the burden of the disease and, by sharing my worries, it’s been a huge weight off my shoulders.

She says her family have “muddled our way through these conversations … often it’s been through tears, often through laughter and with a healthy dose of pragmatism”.

I try to live in the moment, to enjoy my family and friends. I enjoy all the days I have and I cope with the bad days.

Helen said she is “forever grateful” to her mum for opening up to her about her last wishes.

“There has been no greater gift for me as a daughter than for my mum to have shared all of that with me over the past few years.”

wendy and helen 2 Helen and Wendy Source: Screengrab/YouTube.com

Helen said having these conversations “relieved the family of the burden of wondering what she would want”.

“We are the most ordinary family that you could meet, there is nothing exceptional about us.”

We have just been, like everybody else, muddling our way through what life has thrown our way in the best way that we can.
I’m with the Existentialists – I believe that because we are human and because we love and because we can relate so intimately with people, that we are so destined to suffer when we face the mortality of someone we solve.

Helen said that whenever friends sympathise with her about her mother’s diagnosis, she tells them: “You don’t understand how lucky I am. I’m so grateful for so many things … I’ve had her for 40 years, I’ve done really well. She has enriched my life hugely.”

She said the cancer does not define who her mother is, nor has the family “fallen asunder because of it”.

“It is just part of our family’s story now.”

However, she noted: “None of that joy, that celebration, takes always from the reality that we live knowing that my mum is going to die because of cancer … It’s very, very difficult for anybody to bear witness to someone that they love suffering.”

More information about Think Ahead is available here.

Read: Lily-Mae starts first class after battling cancer

Read: ‘I’m going to have surgery, then I start chemo, then I’ll be homeless’

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