“My father Barry Kennedy was a life insurance broker who died with no life insurance.” Laughter fills the auditorium in what may have been a sombre affair, as a panel of four writers discuss death and dying in States of Grief at the Sydney Dance Theatre on Friday as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Simon Kennedy is an entertainer and author of 9/11 and The Art of Happiness: An Australian Story. His father died at an early age, and his mother’s death on September 11, 2001, was particularly poignant: She was the only Australian on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. His book is about finding peace, happiness and forgiveness.
But as a young comedian just starting out on the circuit, he struggled. He desperately tried to keep a low profile and push the media attention away. Emotions including frustration, anger and, he said, selfishness over his career were all in the front of his mind. “How could I still be a comedian if people knew? How would an audience laugh at my jokes if they knew my story?”
Dark humour is a constant theme in the writing of Mandy Sayers. She contributed to My Mother, My Father: On Losing a Parent, a collection of memoirs from authors on how they coped with their grief. She tells of how she took “a swig of my fathers’ morphine after the funeral”.
Her childhood was troubled, her mother was an alcoholic who attempted suicide numerous times, and she didn’t reconnect with her father until later in life. The author of several memoirs, including bestsellers Dreamtime Alice and Velocity, she explained how the process of writing can be therapeutic: “It’s taking the power back.”
“It’s not just about death, it’s about lives, and people and characters,” said Susan Wyndham, literary editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and contributing editor of My Mother, My Father. Ms Wyndham’s mother died two years ago, and she said the intensity of her emotions shocked her; she simply wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming grief.
Ms Wyndham was an only child, and her mother a single parent; they had an intensely close relationship. “I felt like I didn’t love her as much as she deserved. When a parent dies, you always ask yourself, why didn’t we love them better?”
Some of the anthology’s writers kept detailed notes of their parents’ final moments, but Susan didn’t write down a single thing -– all the important memories stayed in her mind. A year later writing it all down was a healing process: “Now my mum is out there in the world, everyone can read about her”.
Guilt was a main theme with all the writers: Guilt of not loving enough, guilt of not being able to help in the final moments, guilt of moving on with their lives.
“I look back and feel regret I didn’t treat Gareth well enough,” said Jono Lineen, author of Into the Heart of the Himalayas. He didn’t realise this story of his trek through the mountains was about his brother, who died in a boating accident aged 19, until he was at the end. “I couldn’t finish the book; I couldn’t tie up the ends and find the essence,” he said. His literary agent recognised the truth and told him: “Jono, this book is about you grieving for your brother.”
Mr Lineen, a seasoned adventurer and author, said his initial reason for trekking through the Himalayas was to simply write a story about his great adventure and “be famous”. However, all that fell away as he began the journey, and he found the process of walking to be a cathartic, “almost religious experience … It completely cleared my mind and allowed me to reflect.”
“We are only here for a short time, make the most of it,” he said.
The audience nodded as the session comes to an end. “I think I’m going to call my mother and tell her I love her,” the lady beside me said quietly.