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Spyros Papaspyropoulos
last rites

Last Rites: the arrival of a priest is a monument to finality in Irish life

How do people who are around death as a job handle it?

THE IRISH DEATH scene is familiar to many, if not all, of us.

Uncomfortable chairs, even more uncomfortable silence, pre-packaged sandwiches and attempts at gallows humour.

But when the sheet is pulled up, the pronouncements made, there is an interloper to the grieving process whose job it is to go about their day as if nothing happened.

Priests and medical staff still play a pivotal role in Ireland’s dying process and both have to stay philosophical.

“You’re around death all time, you have to get used to it,” says Amy* a nurse who works in Dublin.

Through her time in a hospice abroad, she became keenly aware of how to handle the process.

It’s not like it doesn’t affect you, but I’d feel kind of weird sobbing with a family just because I’d looked after their relative for a couple of weeks.

“So you get on with it and let people grieve.”

Fr Philip Curran of St Mary’s Parish says the same goes for men of the cloth.

“It is part of our work and something you get used to over the years. There are individual cases that can take an emotional toll on you, especially if it’s a young person or a child.”

Amy says those cases can be particularly difficult.

“Car crashes, sick kids, accident; those ones are tough. Families look like they’ve been hit by a train and you have to keep doing your job, almost around them. It’s hard sometimes.”

The silences

What those who around dying people most notice is the silence.

Pregnant pauses, phone checking, strolls for air – all understandable, of course, but Curran says that it’s more of a modern phenomenon. He says that Irish people are increasingly uncomfortable with death.

“Very often there’s almost a conspiracy of silence around a dying person,” says Fr Curran.

They know they’re dying, their family knows they’re dying, but nobody acknowledges it and that can be difficult.

“They sometimes think that if a priest appears, it would frighten a person.

I had one case where I went into a lady and she said, ‘You know, Father, I’m dying but my family don’t know it’ and when I went back out to the hall, her daughter said to me, ‘She’s dying, but she doesn’t know it’.

Breaking that silence is important, both say.

“A lot of people want to spare their relatives the pain of knowing they’re going to die, so they hide it from them,” says Amy.

“It’s understandable, but it actually helps nobody. I’ve seen families learn that what they think are “routine” procedures are actually last throws of the dice from hospital staff.

“That’s not how you should find out a loved one is dying.”

Last rites

The arrival of a priest is a monument to finality in Irish life. Families will gather awaiting a clergyman’s arrival and, only then, amid all the tubes and machines and medicine, will the gravity of the situation hit them.

“Sometimes, people will not acknowledge the reality of what’s happening and when you appear, it can be awkward,” says Fr Curran.

“They’ll ask you to say something like you were passing and stopped in, which is pretty idiotic when you think about it.”

The band Death Cab for Cutie once sang “Love is watching someone die”. That line echoes with many people who have done just that.

However, nobody tells you how to do it. How to talk to someone who is dying.

“Just be there, and listen, and that’s the key to it,” says Curran.

“Grief is something there’s no way around. People will often ask me very direct questions about the afterlife, but mostly they’ll just thank you for being there.”


Read: There is no cure for me. I will die from cancer.

Read: ‘Then everyone died’: I lost four people I loved in 14 months

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