Reading Death and Looking it in the Eye

Talking about death, thinking about death, reading about death, these are not morbid activities. Indeed, since the only certainties in life are death and taxes, (Benjamin Franklin, 1817) we may as well find out what we can about it. Perhaps we might find it easier to approach our own end if we consider what others say. As reading is my way into understanding the world and my life, it’s books I have gone to.

I belong to a group of wonderful women, originally eight of us, but Diana died a few years ago. Our group has been meeting for more than 12 years, exploring choices and possibilities in our lives, originally for retirement, but more recently about ageing and death. Some months ago we met to discuss our ideal death. Many of us referred to books in our contributions. I report on these before adding the results of further investigations.

The group’s recommendations

These books prompted us to think about death, good deaths, ideal deaths, and guided us in thinking about what we still needed to think about in relation to death. It was a session that contained as much laughter, as much encouragement and support, and as much help to look at our personal challenges as we always find from our group.

Salley Vickers Miss Garnett’s Angel

Ann Cleves Cold Earth

We know that we cannot easily choose how we die, but these two novels described the quiet and unexpected deaths of characters who were unaware that they were going to die. One of our members hoped for this kind of death. Having one’s things is order was considered part of this ideal death.

Max Porter Grief is the thing with feathers

This is a remarkable book, recommended by one group member who was asking the question ‘ideal for whom?’ reminding us that death affects more than the person who dies.

Another member frequently recommends poetry and she proposed the following:

Neil Astley Soul Food

Mary Oliver Wild Geese

Ruth Padel 52 ways of looking at a poem

In addition she recommended a book by Mark Doty, Dog Years, written by an American poet and telling of his experiences of deaths of partner and dogs.

We talked about people who choose suicide or assisted dying. Another reader mentioned Sweet Caress by William Boyd as it depicts the main character planning suicide but called back to life by suddenly realising she is thinking about what to have for breakfast next morning.

My own contribution was to read Canon Henry Scott-Holland’s Death is Nothing at All, frequently read at funerals.

Death is nothing at all.

It does not count.

I have only slipped away into the next room.

Nothing has happened. …

I told the group that it irritates me because it promotes the idea that separation at death is not permanent. But on rereading I had also found that it captures the idea that the dead remain with us, having influenced our lives and we can hear their voices and still think about them.

We also mentioned in our discussion these three writers and their books.

Diana Athill Somewhere towards the End and Alive Alive Oh

Terry Pratchett Shaking Hands with Death. Lecture on You Tube here.

Jenny Diski In Gratitude.

Books to read

Since then, and because I promised the group a list of books on the topic of death, I have noted these.

Before I say Goodbye by Ruth Picardie was published by Penguin Books in 1998. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Ruth Picardie described the progress of her illness in a series of articles in the Observer. They are collected here together with emails to and from friends, and a foreword and afterword by her sister and husband.

Dying: a Memoir by Cory Taylor. Her memoir on dying is ‘a remarkable gift’ according to three of her friends, writing in the Guardian.

Margaret Drabble wrote The Dark Flood Rises. It is a novel about several older people who are trying to live well in their final years. She spoke about death in October 2016, in an article entitled I am not afraid of death. I worry about living.

Katie Roiphe has written The Violet Hour: great writers at the end, published in 2016 by Virago. She writes a piece in the Guardian about her own experiences, and those of great writers. It is moving.

A Reckoning is a novel by May Sarton. Laura is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and on learning this decides to make a good death on her own terms. This intention is thwarted by her increasing dependency upon others, but she finds much to be pleased with in her final weeks.

The novelist Helen Dunmore has recently been diagnosed with cancer and wrote about mortality and legacy in the Guardian in March 2017: Facing Mortality and What we leave behind.

Another resource

Dying Matters website, strapline ‘Let’s talk about it’. This is an organisation that aims to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and to make plans for the end of life. Their site is a gateway to information and sources of support.

So let’s read about it, talk about it, plan for it. What do you think?

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Filed under Books, Learning, Reading

10 Responses to Reading Death and Looking it in the Eye

  1. Jennifer Evans

    Thanks for this Caroline. I found it very helpful. I’ve spoken to a few people about what our group is doing and found a lot of interest and empathy with it. Also some good suggestions for books. I’ll write more when I’m back from my hols. Currently I’m walking in Provence which is wonderful.

    • Caroline

      Many thanks Jennifer for taking the time to comment, especially as you are walking in Provence. How jealous am I? However, I did have a magnificent walk on Dartmoor last Friday, near Princetown.

      It was a good session, talking about our ideal deaths, and I look forward to further discussion, and especially what other people have said to you.

      Caroline xx

  2. Morag

    What an interesting and powerful discussion. There has been a recent “outbreak ” of books by surgeons on end of life care and preparing to die. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath becomes Air tells of his own transition from neurosurgeon to dying patient. Atul Gawande, another surgeon from the USA writes with great compassion in Being Mortal and closer to home, both of Henry Marsh’s accounts of his career as a surgeon and his observations on death and dignity. Will Schwalbe writes about the comfort of a lifetime of books and reading in The End of your life Book Club as he explores favourite books with his mother in the last months of her life, including Mary Oliver’s poetry. I look forward to more of your recommendations.

    • Caroline

      Thank you for these contributions and comments. I think your addition of the medical angle is an interesting one. Perhaps we did not cover it because we began with our ‘ideal’ deaths, as a way in which gave us the illusion of some control, rather than one that requires medical care.
      I am familiar, as are my two co-authors of The New Age of Ageing, with Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal. It is more about end of life care than dying I think, but still very compassionate and insightful.
      I too have read Will Schwalbe’s book, but not for some time. I loved their shared attitude to books. She always read the end I seem to remember, before she got to it.
      The group’s discussion may not continue with books, but it usually does, so I may not have more recommendations from the group. But this has been a much-read post already, on its first day, so I may look in more details as some of these and others in the future that help us think about death.I might try one of the ‘medical’ ones.

  3. Mervyn

    Additions to book lists are sometimes unwelcome if the pile becomes threatening so apologies for wanting to add one book: Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal”. It has to be there – so sober and thoughtful. He gave the 2014 Reith Lectures based on this book and if you heard them you will know what I mean.

    And not a book but an hour long radio programme tonight (4.6 17) – “My Own Life” – a dramatisation of Oliver Sachs’ writings about his terminal illness. If you read this too late to tune in live don’t forget the wonders of iPlayer which I think work for radio. It should be a very relevant listen.

    I am not a particularly active dog lover but I do remember surprising myself with how moved I was by Mark Doty’s “Dog Years”. I would warmly recommend it.

    Finally, deaths and dealing with death (along with abuse and self-abuse and dealing with them) are central to the extraordinary novel “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara (which should have won a major prize in 2015 but didn’t).

    “Lets plan for it” you say, Caroline. Having lately been close to a very unplanned end, I do think you are so right. The ultimate planning, of course, might take you to another website, Dignity in Dying.

    • Caroline

      Thank you for these additions, Mervyn. And I’m pleased that you are recovered enough to make these comments. The previous commentator also recommended Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, and I made a response to her.
      A Little Life sounds interesting and well-written so thank you for drawing our attention to it.

      We have to be careful what we say in public because of the legal situation surrounding assisted dying, but thank you for referring readers to Dignity in Dying.

      I think that many of us might never feel prepared exactly but with difficult things reading can help, and talking as well.
      Caro xx

  4. I found this really interesting. I’m a palliative care nurse specialist (of many years!) and have worked in hospice, community and currently hospital. So I actually spend a large part of every day talking about death with ‘patients’, families, carers and health care professionals, which I see as an enormous privilege. I am regularly struck by the bravery of those facing death, the desire to engage in conversation and make plans but the timidity at which we as HCP’s so often manage this. I am particularly interested in a less medicalised and more holistic approach to death and am fascinated to read of the discussions you have with your group of friends. On a literary note, I struggle to think of any book I have read about death which is more moving, that Greif is this thing with feathers. I would however add ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness. I look forward to reading more of your investigations.

    • Caroline

      Hi Angie,
      thank you for adding these thoughtful comments. And for sharing your experiences. We definitely favoured less medicalised deaths (and once births I suspect, but that was decades ago). And we were finding our way in to our discussion with the idea of an ‘ideal death’, aware that it rarely happens in a totally planned way.
      Thanks for the addition of A Monster Calls.
      I think Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter was one of the best books of 2015.

      Not sure when or how I will follow up this post, but I’ll see what our next discussion does up with.

  5. Jennifer Evans

    I’ve been struck when talking with friends about our discussion in the Retiring Women group, how they respond to our focus on death (with interest and empathy). One gave me two more books for our list – one you’ve discussed (Being Mortal), the other is ‘Staring at the Sun: overcoming the dread of death by Irvin Yalom. She says it’s full of insight and compassion.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for the additional suggestions. I was pleased by the responses here on the blog as well. There are people who want to consider the challenges of death and to read to find a way through. Caroline.

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