In the rich and emotive Radical Acts of Love, Janie Brown shares twenty conversations with people she was worked with throughout her career as an oncology nurse and counsellor to terminally ill cancer patients. Each easily digestible chapter gives a unique insight into the human psyche when faced with the inevitability of death.
Death is a scary subject for many of us to contemplate, partly because of the fear of the unknown. As Brown herself points out, many people under 60 have never witnessed a person die so there’s a veil of secrecy about the end of life, which she aims to demystify with this book.
Far from being maudlin, Radical Acts of Love is full of hope, tenderness and insight into a largely taboo subject. Most of the people Brown writes about are strangers, but we sense the love and warmth she feels towards those she cares for emanating through the page.
In 1995 Brown founded the Callanish Society, a grassroots non-profit organisation for people living with (and dying from) cancer and many of the conversations around death take place at retreats she has led there. There’s a spirituality to Brown’s practices that some may find off-putting, with talk of therapeutic touch and energy medicine but the stories always come back to humanity, not mysticism.
Although each story is different, common themes occur. Some struggle with a fear of the death itself, some are worried about the people they will leave behind; others are consumed by rage or regret. Some use their remaining time to heal wounds or exorcise demons, with one retreat member recreating the funeral of her own mother that she wasn’t allowed to attend as a child in a particularly poignant passage.
It’s an elegantly written and quietly powerful read which would benefit anyone, regardless of whether cancer has ever encroached on your life. And the meaning of the title? As Brown writes: “Preparing for death is a radical act of love for ourselves, and for those close to us who live on after we’re gone.”