Nov 08

Books About Dying: Five Selections

Five important books about the topics of dying, living well before dying, and living well while dying.

I. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

When humanitarian Mary Anne Schwalbe was living with terminal cancer, her son Will came up with an unusual idea for an activity for them, which is chronicled in this memoir.

II. Exit Laughing: How Humor Takes theSting Out of Death, edited by Victoria Zackheim

From the publisher’s blurb: “As painful as it is to lose a loved one, Exit Laughing shows us that in times of grief, humor can help us with coping and even healing.”

In this collection, various authors tell true stories about dying and loss. For example: “…Amy Ferris explains how her mother’s dementia led to a permanent ban from an airline…Bonnie Garvin even manages to find a heavy dose of dark humor in her parents’ three unsuccessful attempts at a double suicide.”

III. Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich

Ehrenreich addresses our often futile attempts to prolong life via food, exercise, health, and various medical crazes and procedures.

San Francisco Review of Books: “That doctors have begun having themselves tattooed with ‘DNR’ (Do Not Resuscitate) is a clue how extending life a few days or weeks in intensive care is of little benefit.”

The quest to prolong life usually becomes particularly amped up as we age. Results vary and are iffy. Publishers Weekly:

Ehrenreich’s core philosophy holds that aging people have the right to determine their quality of life and may choose to forgo painful and generally ineffective treatments. She presents evidence that such tests as annual physicals and Pap smears have little effect in prolonging life; investigates wellness trends, including mindfulness meditation; and questions the doctrine of a harmonious ‘mindbody’ and its supposed natural tendency to prolong life. Contra the latter, she demonstrates persuasively that the body itself can play a role in nurturing cancer and advancing aging.

IV. The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life by Katy Butler

The Art of Dying Well follows Butler’s previous Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death.

In a piece Butler adapted from Knocking on Heaven’s Door (The Ultimate End-of-Life Plan), the author states:

Why don’t we die the way we say we want to die? In part because we say we want good deaths but act as if we won’t die at all. In part because advanced lifesaving technologies have erased the once-bright line between saving a life and prolonging a dying. In part because saying ‘Just shoot me’ is not a plan. Above all, we’ve forgotten what our ancestors knew: that preparing for a ‘good death’ is not a quickie process to save for the panicked ambulance ride to the emergency room. The decisions we make and refuse to make long before we die help determine our pathway to the final reckoning.

V. The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams

The author of The Unwinding of the Miracle, the most personal of these books about dying, died at the age of 42 from advanced colon cancer. (You can read the obituary her husband Josh wrote about Yip-Williams’s incredible life here.)

Kirkus Reviews“: “Along the way, the author considers a fundamental question: Is it more courageous to keep struggling (trying new meds and procedures, seeing new specialists) or to surrender to the inevitable? Eventually, she realizes, she will have to do the latter, and she enters hospice care.”

Oct 20

“The Etiquette of Illness” by Susan Halpern

Although I’ve already addressed a related topic (see “What Not to Say When Someone’s in Crisis”), when it comes to how to be with a sick or grieving loved one there’s more to add.
One of the main things I took away from reading Will Schwalbe‘s 2012 The End of Your Life Book Club (see previous post) was his use of info from therapist Susan Halpern‘s 2004 The Etiquette of Illness in his ongoing frequent conversations with his terminally ill mom.

Here’s what Halpern suggests when relating to someone who’s sick:

#1 “Ask: Do you feel like talking about how you feel?”

#2 “Don’t ask if there’s anything you can do. Suggest things, or if it’s not intrusive, just do them.”

#3 “You don’t have to talk all the time. Sometimes just being there is enough.”

Taking Number One to heart in his regular encounters with his mom, Schwalbe knew that rather than keep asking her how she was feeling he could ask if she even felt like talking about how she was feeling. There’s a significant difference.

Halpern really gets the struggle: “Of course we don’t know what to say…There is no training program for what to say, and some of us, happily, have very little experience. Some people I have met have felt abandoned in hard times by good friends. Sometimes people who are ill and feeling abandoned will call their friends, but that is rare. It is the role of the ‘well person’ to reach out. While it can be hard to initiate contact, doing so brings pleasure and solace to both parties.”

Additional quotes from The Etiquette of Illness:

When people are suffering, they’re not open to hearing horror stories about others with similar maladies. There is less capacity for compassion at such moments.

When we help, we are in a potentially overpowering position.

Compassion occurs when we open our feelings to the feelings of another person, without judgement, pity, or a need to fix. It is an act of holding the fullness of feelings of another in our awareness and feeling suffering or joy with him or her; without becoming lost in the feeling.

Publishers Weekly‘s summary of Halpern’s contributions: “…[She] believes that what we say depends on the individual, the relationship and one’s own self-consciousness. So long as the words come from the heart, it is the expression of true compassionate feeling that will be remembered by the recipient.”