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My Top 5 Books About Death, Dying, Medicine, and Grief


It is coming up to Christmas, the end of the year, and the 21st of December. Whilst many people around the world are making Christmas lists, dusting off menorahs, tentatively imagining New Year’s resolutions, and thinking about the future, I am thinking about something else. It is not to say that I don’t enjoy the end of year festivities, but I would also be lying if I said they were easy.

My father died on the 21st of December in 2011 and this has become part of an internal calendar, that seems to turn grey around mid-November. It looms, despite all the meditating, book reading, working, running, travelling, and willful forgetting. Like that winter cold you methodically try to protect yourself against, it comes back and gets you when you have your guard down.

Holidays, no matter what religion or walk of life, are often spent with family and community. If you don’t have a good community or family, and/or if there is someone missing from that picture, it can be hard. You might also be trying to support someone who is doing it tough. It can be equally as hard to know what to do and what to say.

Quick tip: phrases like “Everything happens for a reason” and “They are in a better place now” ARE NOT HELPFUL.

I came up with my top five books on death, dying, medicine, and grief as a way to help people going through it, or who are supporting someone going through it. These are not one-size fits all sorta books and some of them are not perfect, but they do offer new perspectives and knowledge about the tough questions we have to answer in life.

  1. The Year of Magical Thinking – by Joan Didion

the year of magical thinking

Joan Didion lost her husband John to a severe heart attack a few days before Christmas. All the while, her daughter Quintana is unconscious in hospital from pneumonia. Her opening line: “Life Changes Fast” are the truest words spoken. Loss comes in all shapes and sizes and whether we get to say our goodbyes or nothing at all does not alter the fact that you cannot begin to fathom the eternal void that is really truly knowing you will never speak to or see that person again.

Didion talks about her first year of grief and how her memory and heart played tricks on her. Instead of a year of magical thinking to describe the first year of grief, it is maybe more apt to call it a year of magical mental acrobatics, but maybe that is just me.

The fault of Didion’s book is not really a fault, but more of a complication (an observation). She is a wealthy upper-middle class woman who has had the experiences that come with it. She wasn’t borrowing money of friends to try to bury her loved-one, nor did she have to deal with a horrible family ripping itself apart. So whilst I read the book knowing Didion and I had different experiences, I also wished she could have acknowledged some of the easy bits about her loss. Many people might assume there are no easy bits about death and grief, but let me tell you it is much easier to do it with money, stability, and support.

2. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory – Caitlin Doughty

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This is by all means the most practical book about death and the processes of burial and cremation I have found for our contemporary society. If you asked a person on the street, what happens to you when you die—and I do not mean the question of an after life, but the steps required to either burn you to ash or put you in the ground—most people probably would not have a clue. It is also okay to have no clue. It is not like cremation is taught in schools. It is not like we learn about embalming as well as compound tax calculations.

You might think this book is for people who secretly want to be vampires, or people who listen to emo music, or wear all black. Why, might you ask, is this a MUST READ book? Burying people costs money. Cremating people costs money. Making sure you understand what you are paying for and what you are doing to your deceased loved one is the most important thing you can learn. Trust me.

People ask for embalming, and funeral homes will even insist that you have to do this, when in reality you do not. Embalming helps preserve the body for a short time, so that your loved one looks nice for an open coffin. But let’s be honest, death is rot. Death cannot be reversed, or slowed. Your loved one is not looking like Snow White waiting to be woken up with a kiss. Maybe you’re not ready to hear that right now, but knowing what happens in crematories and funeral homes is the best thing you can do for yourself. I won’t be the first, or the last person to say this: Knowledge is power.

3. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Really Matters In The End

being mortal

Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. We try to extend life as much as possible, but the question that Atul Gawande proffers is, is it really worth it? The debate about quality of life versus quantity is always a question when it comes to aged care and terminal illness and often we are selfish. We want our loved one to be with us for as long as possible. Sometimes they want it too. Sometimes, despite the pain, torture, torment, struggle, and pain we cannot let go. And I am not blaming you. When my father was dying I oscillated between wanting it to be over and wanting him to never leave me. It also meant I oscillated between feeling guilty about both of those thoughts.

Being Mortal will help you ask yourself, your family, and the person dying the right questions. What matters in the end will change from person to person, what matters in the end is finding a peace with your life and your loved ones. If God appeared to me at this very moment and asked me, “You can have your father back, but you have to tell me when you want him to die…” I would not be able to answer. You cannot answer that question, except for saying “Never.”

4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

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This is a historical biography not just about Henrietta Lacks, but also a long discussion about ethics and duty of care in medicine and medical research. This book is important when talking about illness and death because it brings three very important aspects of human life into the fore: gender, race, and poverty. The way that these things intersect in our personal lives affects the way we live, but they also affect the way we die and how we grieve.

Around the world poverty can impact not only how we receive medical care, but also how we die. Poverty intersects with gender and race and as Skloot discovers throughout her research and many conversations with the Lacks family, there can also be an inherited trauma that comes with loss and death. Society has to ask itself some very tough questions about the way we treat poor people, people of colour, women, and gender-queer people (to name just a few).

We often think of science as a pure truth. It is supposedly objective. The story of Henrietta Lacks will change that for you.

5. When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

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The last book on my list, and this list is in no way a best-to-worst ranking, is an unfinished memoir of a doctor who died of lung cancer. Kalanithi’s memoir gives perspective on the thoughts people have when they are dying and similarly to Being Mortal this book offers a very personal account of what really matters when you are dying.

I saw this book come out and I hesitated to read it, not because I did not want to but because I could not. In fact, many of these books were read much later after my father’s death. I found these books on a personal journal to understanding my own grief, my own loss, and how death and love and pain can all exist in the world in strange harmony. When Breath Becomes Air will make you cry. It will rip you open and give your heart back to you with a piece missing. Although, with all honesty, I can tell you it is worth it.

These are my top five books on death, dying, medicine, and grief. Have you read any of these books? What is missing from the list? As always, share the reading love.

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