The Dance to Death: the Aesthetic Experience of Dying
Adamson, Veronica Margaret Farquhar
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This study explores the shared experience of one woman’s ovarian cancer, from diagnosis to death. The disease, known as the silent killer, is difficult to diagnose with the majority of women presenting with vague symptoms and advanced disease. It is difficult to treat, necessitating both aggressive chemotherapy and radical, eviscerating surgery. In 2011, around 7,100 new cases were diagnosed in the UK; in 2012 around 4,300 died from ovarian cancer. If diagnosed early, 90% of women survive for more than five years but only 5% survive if advanced disease is found on first presentation.1 The woman with ovarian cancer in this study was my partner. During her illness this research did not feature as such but we were both aware that there might be a sense of something unfinished after her death; she gave her full support for whatever I subsequently chose to do. In this thesis I explore and investigate our shared experience using documentary materials from the Illness Period, the eleven months from diagnosis to death. The thesis is in three parts, each with three chapters. In broad terms, Part One concerns the Form and Function of the study comprising the impetus for the research, its contextualisation in the literature and the approach to the inquiry. Part Two, The Dance to Death, describes the illness experience with recourse to the literature as appropriate. Part Three, The Aesthetic Experience of Dying, connects the narrative of the Illness Period from Part Two, with insights from German Idealism as embodied in Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. These and many of Goethe’s writings were my late partner’s own area of doctoral study. They are used here to provide a means to further explore some aspects that emerged from the Illness Period. The research question addressed in this study is: What can be learnt from a shared experience of living with and through a life-limiting illness? Dance emerged early in the study as a metaphor for the movement of our bodies through that time. The dance appears in three ways: first as quotidian life between health care appointments and everything else, secondly as an element of the methodology in the dialogue between the narrative and the literature, and finally in binary synthesis. This is the resolution of the tension between two opposing concepts, for example living and dying, and is taken from German Idealism as a mode of inquiry to understand aesthetic experience. The Illness Period is described in some detail as an analytic narrative reconstructed from the data with reference to the literature at relevant points. The role of the partner-carer in maintaining the balance between the life of have been captured through a series of self-directed interviews using storyboards to guide the storytelling. These data were augmented through access to the hospital and primary health records which provided information to fill gaps and correct inaccuracies. Drawing on Heidegger, a connection is found to home, being at home, homelessness and homecoming that provides a natural resolution to the tension between living and dying. Aesthetic experience, with particular reference to the dying person, is defined as a feeling of serenity of mood, a vividness of presence and a heightened self awareness. Three contributory aspects to the emergence of aesthetic experiences are identified: 1) a sense of at-homeness and home as a sacred, peaceful place 2) the inner court of family and friends that provides a context for sociability 3) heightened sensory awareness experienced as moments of pleasure through taste, touch, smell, sound and sight This study traces a path through one woman’s experience of ovarian cancer, from diagnosis to death, using insights drawn from 18th century German Idealism as an understanding of the aesthetic. It is not a study of life and death but of living and dying with a spirit of well-being.