March is just beginning, and three deaths and a cancer diagnosis have already hit my family. What a way to begin a new decade, and what a strange decision on my part to pick up a book all about death for review in the middle of all this tragedy. Perhaps I thought it would heal me, or perhaps I wanted to wallow further in my own fearful morbidity. In Radical Acts of Love, oncology nurse and counsellor Janie Brown recounts her experience with twenty previous clients and friends, all diagnosed with terminal cancer. With an aim at gently coaxing her patients to a more peaceful relationship with death, Brown presents herself more as a friend than a medical professional, a firm hand to hold throughout the navigation of what is often a painful, despondent ordeal.
Instead of a linear narrative, Radical Acts is presented as twenty short stories. Brown relates in gentle, sympathetic prose the various ways in which cancer and a terminal prognosis can affect individuals and families. We move from one patient who chooses to end their own life, to one whose husband refuses to accept her fate altogether, to the point of disregarding her wishes in order to cling to her for as long as he can. We see children moved in different ways by the loss of a parent, one who was motivated to change the way cancer treatment is approached within the medical field to better suit emotional needs, and another who was only able to process the loss of her mother when her own cancer diagnosis forced her to acknowledge it. Patients deal with childhood trauma and abuse, loss of function, and questions which they had hoped never to ask of themselves or their loved ones, all in front of Janie Brown.
There are no happy endings, nor can there be, as all involved are poignantly aware. Brown’s dedication to approaching the difficult task of making her clients comfortable with their own impending death, rather than disingenuously swaying them to spirituality or to the idea of psychologically curing themselves, is admirable. In situations such as these, it is entirely too easy to relinquish that emotional burden and become a quack, or to detach oneself altogether from the patient. In the same vein, it would be easy to take stories such as those related in Radical Acts and present them in all of their tragic haplessness in order to make a quick misery profit. Brown, undertaking what I can only imagine to have been intense emotional labour both in the recollection and composition of such memories, succeeds in presenting each story with both realism and hope. Death is inevitable, chasing each focal character with abnormal urgency, but is not presented as a malignant villain. To read a work which illustrates terminal illness as such, without relying on melodrama or saccharine optimism, feels like a gift. Brown’s empathy is genuine and heartfelt, and makes itself known on every page. An emotional response to this book is unavoidable, but there is nevertheless a comforting hand squeezing the reader’s shoulder throughout.
Only one narrative trait keeps Radical Acts from getting top marks. As the work progresses, the stories and the way that they are presented on the page begins to get repetitive. Brown is not a writer – that much is made clear during a chapter in which one of her friends founds a writing workshop within the cancer retreat which Brown runs. Therefore, I cannot dock Brown too many points for writing each chapter more like a case file than an individual piece of prose.
Janie Brown has provided readers with a place to meditate on and process the feelings of anger, grief, and confusion that accompany a bleak prognosis. Hearing that you, that someone you love, will be lost is a blow that will stagger us all. As Brown writes in her preface, we should work not to avoid this inevitability but to “[reclaim] the death process.”
Any Cop?: Radical Acts of Love offers a refreshing perspective on loss as something that should not be feared, but embraced in all of its unavoidability.