SMH: Late author’s lasting legacy

sara-in-office-featuredSara Douglass was world-famous for her novels, but her blog about dying, featured in the Sunday Times, captured WA’s attention.

She sparked a flood of letters when her controversial blog entry, The Silence of the Dying, featured in the Sunday Times last year. And now she has found peace.

Award-winning fantasy author Sara Douglass had her ashes scattered over her gardens at her home in Tasmania on Friday after passing away from ovarian cancer, aged 54. (September 30th, 2011)

The former South Australian nurse turned medieval history lecturer shot to international fame with her Axis Trilogy.

A collection of short stories, The Hall of Lost Footsteps, was finished just before her death and will be published in November (2011).

Douglass, whose real name was Sara Warneke, gained unexpected attention mid last year when her blog was featured in Sunday Times , giving a raw, funny and honest account of dying.

It included how the well-meaning drown people in soft toys, cards and empty platitudes, while the seriously ill are forced to cheer up loved ones. Assuming loved ones still want to visit, that is.

“Our collective attention span for someone who is ill lasts about two weeks,” she wrote. “After that they’re on their own. From my own experience and talking to others with bad cancer or chronic illness, I’ve noticed a terrible trend.

“After a while, and only a relatively short while, people grow bored with you not getting any better and just drift off. Phone calls stop. Visits stop. Emails stop. People drop you off their Facebook news feed. Eyes glaze when you say you are still not feeling well. Who needs perpetual bad news?”

“I have begun to notice death all about me,” she also noted. “I resent every celebrity who ‘has lost their long battle with cancer’. Oh God, what a cliché. Can no one think of anything better? It isn’t anything so noble as a ‘battle’ gallantly lost, I am afraid. It is just a brutal, frustrating, grinding, painful, demoralising, terrifying deterioration that is generally accomplished amid great isolation.”

The response was enormous, and Douglass told The Sunday Times she was greatly warmed by the outpouring of emails and feedback.

“Incredible,” she emailed later about the huge response. “And such a shame. As a society we deal with death very badly. I am glad if I could help – and shed light on just what one person goes through.”

The author is survived by two sisters and a brother. They posted a tribute online recalling her as “possessively private” and someone “who could see a funny angle to most situations”.

Douglass’s close friend of 20 years, and carer for the past nine months, Karen Brooks, wrote this week: “She seemed to find inner peace. She died, as she lived  on her own terms, in her own time. Her death was quick.”

Brooks spread the author’s ashes “over her beloved garden with her cats and a bottle of bubbly as witnesses”.

She also shed some light on Douglass’s final days, which the author had always said she hoped would be spent at home.

“The final days were, by her choice, in a palliative care ward in Hobart,” Brooks wrote in a tribute. “Despite what she wrote in her forthright and amazing blog, ‘The Silence of the Dying’, Sara chose not to die at home.

“After two weeks in hospital and then just over two in palliative care, she made the decision, despite everything being set in place (care teams organised, doctor ready, and I was to move in with her), not to return.

“I think it was emotionally too hard for her – the distancing from her old life had begun. The palliative care ward was comfortable, the ambience was warm, the staff caring, frank and compassionate: just like Sara.”

Douglass’s five adored cats, featured regularly in her blogs, will be adopted by Brooks and her husband, Stephen.

Read The Silence of the Dying blog post here.

This article was written by Sheryl-Lee Kerr and originally appeared in The Sunday Times, the Sunday edition of perthnow.com.au.

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