The Intimacy of Death & Dying

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Trypheyna McShane shines light and love on an often confronting topic.

You’ve had quite an interesting life thus far. Tell us a bit about where you’ve been and what you’ve done?

Aged two, I was taken to Ghana, West Africa. I lived there 17 years, until my lawyer father took cases against a corrupt government. On winning, he was issued with a deportation order. His Ghanaian partners  were unable to be deported, so my father became the target. The Supreme Court denied their right to deport him, but the government put him in front of a magistrate, who was ordered to throw him in an old slave jail. The British High Commission had a 24 hour watch on the jail, so he couldn’t be spirited away and murdered. Realising how dangerous this was, he agreed to leave. The Government then issued my mother with a 72 hour deportation notice – 17 years of our life, packed up in 72 hours. Having just finished boarding school, I was in London watching this unfold from a distance, having no idea I couldn’t go home again, to Ghana, for over 40 years.

My father had been building a boat. Secretly shipped on a tuna boat from Ghana to Puerto Rico, by a wonderful friend, we spent a year on it sailing the West Indies, getting ready to sail to Australia. The Australian High Commissioner, a friend, had felt we would be good people for Australia to give refuge to. In Antigua, a crane driver lifted the boat out of the water to anti-foul it, only to drop it on metal pylons. Again, what home we had was taken. We arrived as a family with 10 pounds to our names.

Once in Australia, I trained as a silversmith, only to lose all my tools in the dreadful Dural bushfires of 1975.

Building my life again with my husband and children over many years, we then found ourselves wiped out financially in 2008 by a financial planner, losing our home, savings and super and lived in a caravan for seven years. The ABC’s 7:30 Report told our story in 2016, but sadly, it still has not been settled.

Loss and grief are life. Expressing those ups and downs creatively allows me to extract gifts, because there are always gifts if we just go searching for them.

You are a co-author of the book The Intimacy of Death and Dying. Tell us a bit about it?  

My husband’s sister was my inspiration; she asked me to help nurse her at home through the final stages of a terminal illness. I had never been asked to do anything like this before. One night I told the palliative care nurse I’d searched to find stories of how other people with no experience had dealt with supporting someone through dying, but to no avail. She said, “Well you know what that means – you are going to have to write it”. 

Twenty-two beautifully told stories, of such courage, cover a broad spectrum – expected deaths of elderly, unexpected deaths of young, accidents, suicide, and illness, interspersed with very practical information. I know this can be scary territory, but if someone takes your hand and says, “This is safe”, it can help take some of that fear away – which this book does.

What inspired you to write a book on this subject?

I discovered, from deeply personal experiences of 12 deaths close together, that we are capable of working magic in the company of death if we only dare. It’s where the greatest love and compassion can exist – incredible sacredness, which needs to be shared.

Death is often a confronting topic to talk about. How do you broach such a subject with people?

Acknowledge I will die. Admit no one gets out of here alive. Share that; becoming curious about and making friends with death made my life infinitely better. We all leave a legacy, whether we realise or not, and our lives really matter. Creativity is how our soul speaks. Using my creativity in support of others to express their creativity gives a voice to others, often at very difficult times. Not enough people get a chance to be heard. My work can help give voice to the voiceless, helping others express their creative legacy.

How can we prepare to deal with the death of young and old, and honour someone’s life? 

Some of the bravest people I’ve worked alongside are Bear Cottage Children’s Hospice families and staff. As an art therapist, it was such a privilege to be in the company of deep love, honesty, compassion, and laughter. There is no BS – life’s too short for that. This is the best way to deal with death. 

I’m blessed to have trained through the Liverpool Hospital Reflected Legacy program, which I would love to bring to the MidCoast region as Sacred Legacy. It is such a deep honouring of the value of the legacy left by every life lived.

What practical suggestions do you have when dealing with death? 

Read The Intimacy of Death and Dying.

You are also an accomplished artist and an award winning sculptor; tell us a bit about that.

A long story, including seven years as a Taronga Zoo wildlife artist, years as a community artist – arts grants from Dept of Aboriginal Affairs, supporting elder Della Walker with her book, Me and You, creating artwork for the Royals visit to Bear Cottage, painting my father’s portrait with his ashes https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/artist-trypheyna-mcshane-paints-fathers-ashes-into-portrait-of-love-and-loss/news-story/dfbfb0d5d9aab81d03dd17f2242cc9b9

The Memory Smith is also one of your ventures; tell us about that.

TMS creates silver fingerprint jewellery for people, making precious pieces, for anyone, including families whose children have died at Bear Cottage and the hospitals. Having your loved one’s fingerprints makes this possible.

Rachel, the mother of young child who died at Bear Cottage, explains the importance of this precious fingerprint jewellery: “I received the beautiful charms in the post this week. They are just gorgeous; I love them. I wear the heart shaped one on Carys’s necklace around my neck and the oval one on her charm bracelet. I cried when I opened and saw them; they are so pretty. I feel like I am physically carrying a little piece of her around with me all the time now. I can physically feel the ridges and patterns of her unique fingerprints at any time. It is such a special thing that you have enabled me to do; thank you so much.” 

What has been one of the highlights of your career?

My heart’s answer is: having been able to offer a little solace to others, during times of grief. My head’s answer is: having been commissioned to create the sculpture representing Australasia, as one of Cadbury Schweppes five regions in the Southern Hemisphere for their head office in Singapore.

How can we find out more information?

TMS website https://thememorysmith.com.au/ 

TMS Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/thememorysmith/

Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/IntimacyOfDeathDying/

email: Trypheyna@thememorysmith.com.au

Thanks Trypheyna.

Interview: Bronwyn Davis.

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