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Terminally ill offer personal insights on living, dying and dreams

Award winning visual artist Pipper Wischer.

The Dreamers is a transforming and reassuring book that should be placed in doctors’ and hospital outpatient waiting rooms, according to one of Australia’s eminent palliative care specialist, Professor Ian Maddocks AM.

“Chain it to the wall like the Medieval Bibles, because it is quite beautiful and will be tempting to steal,” he warns in a written review.

“And like the Bible its many contributors speak of serious matters like death and love.”

Such is the impact of the book, by visual artist Pippa Wischer, that an exhibition of its photographic portraits, text and recorded interviews features at Melbourne’s Parliament House this week. The free exhibition, open to the public, captures the thoughts and dreams of 40 people receiving palliative care, and gives insights into what they think happens after death.

Some insights are warm and thought provoking, like that from French cheese-lover Lucette, who announced in hospital there was no way she was going to die before she had a lasagne. Six weeks before her death she explained to Ms Wischer that she wanted to die peacefully, knowing that she was dying. “For me that’s important, being able to live your death.”

“These dying persons are you and me, totally recognisable, and able to encourage in each one of us a reflection on our own death.”

Other insights are confronting and desperately sad. Two months before she died, Tania told Ms Wischer: “People talk about fighting; being positive, and I think it’s a delusion. I don’t want to die for another 30 years, but I have to accept that I am and do that with some dignity. The hardest part is the kids because they don’t get it yet, so I have to work on that now.”

Professor Maddocks writes that none of the 40 people featured in The Dreamers are afraid of death and that they face their reality with honesty and courage.

“Each one is different; each reveals self openly alongside a superb portrait, and there are little images of family life in the margin. These dying persons are you and me, totally recognisable, and able to encourage in each one of us a reflection on our own death.”

Asking terminally ill people how they felt about living, dying and their dreams was a daunting task that Ms Wischer didn’t take lightly. Having experienced her mother’s death at home she felt she knew what to expect of the dying process. But she was concerned about asking questions that might cause her subjects grief.

Initially, Ms Wischer was concerned she may need psychological training in order to conduct interviews appropriately, but after exploring the ethics of her proposed work she realised that was unnecessary. She found she was well placed to ask questions from the perspective of an artist, coming from a place of great empathy.

“I couldn’t change the situation but I could listen with intent. I asked difficult questions, but I sat and listened and I heard what they were saying,” she tells Palliative Matters.

“I got better at it, but I was shaky at the start. I found it confronting. It was really rewarding but also challenging. At the time I was working part-time on a help line and there were counsellors there, so I made good use of my colleagues.”

Ms Wischer, who has a Master of Fine Art (Research) in documentary video and photographic portraiture, was interested to learn what it was like when they were diagnosed, how they felt and how it impacted on their relationships with family members. She wanted to know what it was like to experience palliative care, what challenges stemmed from receiving intimate care from complete strangers and why relationships with these professionals often became meaningful, quickly.

Ms Wischer says she wove the concept of dreams into the book after reading about the changes that can occur in people’s dreams as they near death. The author, a psychologist, suggested that the frequency and intensity of dreams changed, along with the content. Ms Wischer extended the concept, asking about the dreams people had had for their lives as well as the dreams they had while they slept.

Building a rapport with her subjects at such a difficult time in their lives had a significant impact on Ms Wischer. While many people featured in The Dreamers have died, Ms Wischer is still in touch with some terminally ill people and their families.

She says being privy to the deaths of older people who were happy to go, surrounded by their families, was sad but not devastating.

“I had a connection with them, but I could let them go,” she says.

“There are others for whom I still grieve. For a lot of them, they were the ones who had unfinished business; the mothers of younger children for example.”

This week’s exhibition at Parliament House in Melbourne is the seventh time The Dreamers has been shown. It has been seen by more than 100,000 people. Today’s official opening is at 1pm and the exhibition closes at 11am on 19 August.

The Dreamers was produced with assistance from the Grampians Regional Palliative Care Team and published by Palliative Care Victoria. To purchase a copy email info@pallcarevic.asn.au


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