We need to do death better

We don’t do death very well in this culture. We corral it, put makeup on it, assign stages to it, and then lock ourselves in the closet to weep. We don’t know what it looks like or feels like, how to talk about it, or listen to others talk about it. We need to do death better by coping with death. Learning and reading about death can help.


My mom died in the hospital three days after she had coded, during which time she suffered brain damage from lack of oxygen. Several weeks before she underwent a routine, outpatient gall bladder removal that resulted in damage severe enough that she was admitted to the hospital a week later. She died at the age I am right now because of an error. My family was, like any family is, stunned. Nothing about the situation made sense.

The last three days felt like a dream state to me. I watched myself from afar as I did the things I had to do. After she died, in the early afternoon, I had no idea what to do. We had lived in the Intensive Care waiting room or my mom’s room for about two weeks. Where do you go after there’s no more reason to be in the waiting room? My husband and I ended up walking around a mall.

Several months later, the world still felt odd and distant to me, but the people around me continued to do what they’d always done. People were very generous and kind, but life does go on. I remember wishing that I could wear a black armband and publicly state that I was grieving. I had a desire to be given space, to be allowed to unobtrusively note that my world had ground to a halt.

Two years after my mom’s death, Sherwin Nuland’s book, How We Die, was published, and it helped me understand the process of death. Nuland, a surgeon, devotes a chapter or two each to death by heart attack, old age, Alzheimer’s, murder, euthanasia, AIDS, cancer, and viruses. He details the physical processes of each of these kinds of deaths, introduces us to people who have died in these ways, and investigates the cultural setting and ethical perspectives about various deaths.

Perhaps it’s odd to say it, but I found the book consoling and healing. Knowing more about how death happens, what happens in the body, offered me insight into the process my mother had gone through. It made the experience of death more familiar. Each of us will die, every living thing does, and knowing something about how that happens offered me the chance to process death, address it, talk about it, and plan for it.

This is also the reason I loved Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, Mortality. He wrote the book in the 18 months that he lived after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. When I got the book I had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and even though I had every reason to expect recovery and remission, I still needed to hear how he talked about cancer.

I was never Christopher Hitchens’ biggest fan, especially in the last years of his life when he made a 180 degree turn into a pro-war conservative. He famously wrote an article in Vanity Fair entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” which typified his particular sort of misogyny. He was frequently bombastic and offensive, but he could write and talk and argue in a way I found dazzling.

Mortality is a lovely book, completely free of maudlin self-pity. It’s funny and honest and eloquent. Hitchens was an atheist and debated with numerous individuals about his views. Not surprisingly, after he was diagnosed many people contacted him to say that they were praying for him and urging him to accept their belief in a god.

He writes, “I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was not time to be making enemies.”

As a man facing death, he is able to be gracious to people he had aggressively and violently disagreed with when he was healthy. He offers his readers a view of how an atheist confronts and, eventually, accepts a diagnosis of terminal cancer. He offers a lens through which to think about cancer and illness. He is also blunt about medical procedures and the role thrust upon you when you are a “patient” in the hospital. He shares his fear of losing the ability to talk and, then, to write.

I offer both books to you as examples of how we can do death better. If we bring these processes and experiences into the light, learn to talk about them, share new ways of thinking about them, we will make them better processes. We need to hear people’s stories and listen to their words, make space in our lives to learn about one of the most neglected aspects of our lives.



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Filed under: Books on Cancer

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