Nation needs to be ready to let Mandela go

On Wednesday, January 26, I left the television on. Cameras zoomed in on reporters camped outside Milpark hospital in Jo’burg.

How close were we to losing our beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela? And how much of our national identity would we lose with his passing?

On Friday afternoon, as Siphiwe the pharmacist processed my mom’s scripts, he said: “I’m feeling sad. I heard Madiba died this morning. A friend of mine is close to the family.” My eyes brimmed with tears as I remembered how attentive Madiba was after my husband Joe Slovo died. He called regularly in those first months, simply asking: “How are you?”

Friday’s evening news carried footage of Madiba leaving the hospital. Saturday’s photos showed people gathered at Candle of Hope ceremonies for him. We have a reprieve. I’m wondering what we might do with it.

I’ve just finished reading Easeful Death by Mary Warnock and Elizabeth Macdonald, a book that advocates living well and dying well, not being kept alive by medical technology when life no longer offers “critical interest” and presents value to the person. “We must all, including priests, doctors, and lawyers, come to believe that — a good death is a real possibility, something that should not be denied to anyone,” they write.

I hope that Madiba is enjoying time with those closest to him, that he has a sense of a life well lived and of our deep love for him. Will I pray next time it is reported that Madiba is very ill?

I grew up as a puzzled Catholic child. Sunday sermons instructed us to pray for the recovery of the likes of Mrs Wilkinson, who was old and sick. “Why would we pray for her to live longer instead of praying for her to meet St Peter at the Pearly Gates?” I wondered. I was reprimanded: “Such questioning lacks humility. It is the will of God.”

The saying “The only thing certain in life is death” is common. But it is uncommon for most people to be at ease with the presence of death. Yet much preparation is needed if we are to die well. Have I had all the conversations I want to have had? Do the people I love know I love them? Do I have unresolved issues to settle? Practically, there are questions to be answered about wills, which medical interventions one accepts, the donation of body parts to science, plans for the funeral and whether to be buried or cremated.

Joe only confronted such things three days before his death. His signing of his will was emotional, like the signing of his own death warrant. But, being ready in your head, that’s the final challenge. We’ve lost many of the traditions that helped the dying. American Indians had a death lodge where people went when they were very ill and where community members could have their last conversations. There was also solo time for meditation, for spiritual preparation.

Traditions vary. Orthodox Jews feel that “the greatest respect [is] to watch over a person as he passes from this world on to the next”, as the writer and rabbi Maurice Lamm, writes. In 2010, I completed a Hospice care-givers course as well as a “Dying as a Rite of Passage” programme in San Francisco. All the teachers spoke about how often people choose to die when no one is with them and also about how “giving permission to die” may be important.

Madiba has family, his flesh and blood. And then, like Joe, but on an even larger scale, he has the family that is us, the nation. We need to be more ready to let him go. Days after Joe died, I wrote to friends and colleagues who so respectfully gave our family privacy. I shared some of what had happened. So many people needed to process their loss.

In Joe’s Unfinished Biography (published by Ravan in 1995) I wrote:
“Wednesday night had been a terrible night for Joe — restless, taking a shower, moving often. Just after dawn, we sat by the aquarium — Joe was hunched, shivering slightly whilst feeling hot. I noticed he was not wearing his spectacles, not focusing, but withdrawing inside himself, barely communicative.

“‘Joe, you’re not enjoying anything anymore, are you?’


“‘It’s torture for you to be in so much discomfort and torturous for us to watch you in this way.”


“‘Joe, all that willpower that you put into staying alive, can’t you now put your remaining energy and ­willpower into dying more quickly?’

“‘I will.”

After this, Joe slept.

“On waking, Joe began his restless moving about again — His weakening continued throughout the day. Gillian [Slovo] said she sat with him and willed him to die quickly. We had all reached this point.”

That evening, Madiba came to visit. He “greeted Joe in his warm manner. They sat with Joe’s hand squeezing Madiba’s in acknowledgment as Madiba carried the conversation forward —

“[Later] Madiba — bent over Joe and their heads rested together for a lengthy and poignant moment. ‘Goodbye, Joe,’ said Madiba and slowly began to move away. I thought Joe was going to complete the visit without uttering a word, but he decisively took Madiba’s hand and said, ‘Cheers’.

“— Over the next hours, we sat with him, together, one by one, two by two — Just before 3am —. there was silence, all breathing had stopped. We each took a glass in our hands and, reiterating Joe’s last word to Madiba, we toasted Joe’s departure. ‘Cheers.'”

Fazel Randera, Joe’s doctor, is the kind of doctor Easeful Death speaks of, doctors who understand that “helping someone to die … is part of their compassionate role, their age-old role as the easers of suffering and, at the end, the easers of death.”

When Madiba is close to dying, I hope it will not be while hooked up to a life-support machine. I hope he dies in his own bed or his favourite chair, surrounded by whoever or whatever gives him the deepest feeling of peace. And when he’s this close, I won’t be praying for his recovery. My thoughts will be on wishing him the most beautiful, peaceful, loving exit out of this world.

Helena Dolny is a leadership and life coach and a Hospice volunteer. Contact: [email protected]

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