Dealing with Death
Philosophical, Emotional and Thoughtful Contemplations About Our Common Denominator
I find myself thinking about death frequently these days. In the last few years I’ve lost my father, a beloved labrador after 14 years together and most recently a special little stray dog named, Sadie. Death snatched them all before I was ready to let go.
So, since I am still alive (at least at this writing), I turn to my books. Below I offer a few bookbundles and additional amazing resources to help you contemplate death in an effort to help you build a stronger connection to your life.
Questions I invite you to consider as you read & explore:
- Is it useful to think about death?
- Why don’t we talk about it more?
- How do we widen our conversation about dying?
THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH BY LEO TOLSTOY
In 1886 the brilliant Leo Tolstoy published one of his finest pieces, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Tolstoy was 58 (he would live another 24 years) and had gone through a serious and dramatic religious conversion several years before.
In this novella, Tolstoy tells the story of a high court judge dying from a terminal illness. It is only as Ivan Ilyich comes face to face with his looming demise, that he begins to reflect upon his life “most simple, most ordinary and thus most terrible”.
As the psychologist Mark Freeman wrote in the journal, Aging and Society,
Tolstoy’s book is about many things: the tyranny of bourgeois niceties, the terrible weak spots of the human heart, the primacy and elision of death. But more than anything, I would offer, it is about the consequences of living without meaning, that is, without a true and abiding connection to one’s life …”
BEING MORTAL BY ATUL GAWANDE
In his fourth book, Being Mortal (audio format my preference) Atul Gawande MD MPH, Stanford & Harvard educated, Rhodes scholar and surgeon is cool, collected and thoughtful about his subject matter, except when he’s not. Dr. Gawande writes with a thoughtful, measured consciousness about the current medical system, the process of death and the personal stories of patients and his own family as everyone grapples with the challenges of impending and certain death in the face of life that is still to be lived and affirmed. How is Gawande, both physician and son, to advise his dying father? His mother who is determined to hang on to the man who has been her partner in life?
Gawande is unflinching, yet compassionate in his assessment as he writes about the balancing act that is now required by individuals, families and society when faced with the miracles promised by modern medicine in a world whose philosophical and ethical sophistication has not caught up with the technology. He does not have all the answers but he does raise important and deeply provoking questions.
A LESSON BEFORE DYING BY ERNEST J. GAINES
If you knew when you were going to die, would that impact how you lived?
Here’s a twist: if you knew when you were going to die and it was because you were falsely convicted of a crime, would that impact how you lived?
The following is from the National Endowment for the Arts website and is excerpted from Ernest J. Gaines’s interview with Dan Stone.
“I used to have nightmares about execution. I lived in San Francisco, just across the bay from San Quentin. Ten o’clock on Tuesdays was execution day. I wondered what this person must go through the month before, the week before, then the night before. I’d see myself, my brothers, and my friends going to that gas chamber. I’d have those nightmares over and over.
I wanted to write a story about an execution, so a colleague told me about this material that he had about a young man, who had been sent to the electric chair twice. The first time the chair failed, but a year later, he was executed. That happened in 1948, the same year that I left to go to California.
We are all going to the electric chair. We are all going to die. How do you want to live?
DYING EVERY DAY: SENECA AT THE COURT OF NERO BY JAMES ROMM
The last few years has seen a renewed interest in stoic philosophy. Fitting for the times.
What happens when your boss is a bad guy increasingly spiraling out of control and you continue in his employ? You stay. You tell yourself you might be able to make a difference; it would be worse without you; but you are privy to many morally reprehensible actions. You amass a great fortune but live a stoic life. You are careful and political. You are not the best, but you are not as bad as the baddest. Then you are banished; eventually forced to die by your own hand. Are you a good guy in a bad situation or just another bad guy in a bad situation?
To say this is a book for our times would be an understatement.
Additional Thought-Provoking Resources:
If you are interested in more discussion on death, I urge you to check out Dr. B.J. Miller. He helps run the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, His is a heart wrenching and moving story and an inspiration for any day you’re feeling sorry for yourself.
Another Book To Consider:
This book is not for everyone. Technically, one might argue it’s not even a book about death. It’s more a book about the after effects of death.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is at once a disturbing, fascinating, at time humorous, but definitely unique exploration into the journey a body makes through the world of the living before it finds a final resting place. Mary Roach is unflinching in her graphic descriptions.