How to write about death

By Michael Upchurch

[I]n a beautiful passage, early on in her new book, Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat explains, “We write about the dead to make sense of our losses, to become less haunted, to turn ghosts into words, to transform an absence into language.”

Danticat’s own masterpieces — her memoir of her father’s and uncle’s deaths, “Brother, I’m Dying”; her novel-in-stories about a Haitian torturer, “The Dew Breaker”; and her early collection of tales, “Krik? Krak!” — have done exactly that. Her prose is often cool and taut on the surface, yet also rife with hidden currents and flashes of warmth. At her best, Danticat taps into such tough subject matter as political exile, mob violence, and refugee desperation with a trickless, spellbinding clarity.

The strongest thread in “The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story” (one in a series of Graywolf Press titles addressing specific aspects of the craft of writing) is her account of her mother’s reaction to being diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer.

“In the car on the way home,” Danticat remembers, “we were both lost in a terrible silence that should have been filled with tears. At a red light, where I stopped for too long, my mother spoke up for the first time since we’d heard the news and warned, ‘Don’t suddenly become a zombie.’ She was telling me not to lose my good sense, to keep my head on my shoulders.”

Her mother brought humor even to the most humiliating hospital situations. To a nurse who had trouble drawing blood from her, she wisecracked, “It’s too bad you’re not like those vampires on TV who just put their teeth on someone’s neck.” When, toward the end, she opted out of repeated rounds of chemotherapy, she couldn’t have been more straightforward about it. “I’m not necessarily dying either today or tomorrow,” she said. “But we all must die someday.”

Danticat’s portrait of her is kind and loving. It also is, inevitably, anguished in its sense of loss. “I was shocked,” she says, “by how quickly many others expected me to bounce back and rejoin the world.”

But “The Art of Death” isn’t simply a memoir. It looks at how other authors have dealt with death in their writing. Danticat’s focus is on Tolstoy, Camus, Chekhov, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde and more than three dozen others. She touches on her own work as well.

It’s an impossible task, and Danticat’s attempts to order her thoughts on suicide, bereavement, and death-row prisoners’ experience can be unwieldy. She’s less assured when analyzing someone else’s text than she is when evoking her own experience. Her extensive commentary on Morrison’s novels, for instance, can’t compete with Danticat’s direct dealings with death.

Danticat is a straight shooter as a writer, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that she gives no nod to the thumb-nosing irreverence toward death you find in Laurence Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” (or, more recently, Monty Python). Some readers may also feel it odd that she omits such obvious candidates as Virginia Woolf and — ahem — Shakespeare from this discussion.

But a full study of how authors address death in their work would run to multiple volumes, and the format of Graywolf’s “The Art of” series puts firm constraints of length on its authors.

Danticat does make many essayistic observations that serve the book well — conclusions that she, looking inward, came to on her own. She notes the way we sometimes find ourselves “rehearsing” our future bereavements. She questions how one can “prepare to meet death elegantly.”

“We are all bodies,” she writes, “but the dying body starts decaying right before our eyes. And those narratives that tell us what it’s like to live, and die, inside those bodies are helpful to all of us, because no matter how old we are, our bodies never stop being mysterious to ourselves.”

For authors, the elusive nature of death never stops posing a challenge.

“Having been exposed to death does help when writing about it,” Danticat notes, “but how can we write plausibly from the point of view of the dying when we have not died ourselves, and have no one around to ask what it is like to die?”

Far from being morbid, this small book is a bracingly clear-eyed take on its subject.

Complete Article HERE!

Longfellow And The Deep Hidden Woods Review

To celebrate the 2nd anniversary of the publication of Longfellow And The Deep Hidden Woods I thought I’d share with you a touching review just published on Amazon.


myste lynMyste Lyn from Bittersweet Blessing shares her thoughts after reading the Longfellow book



5.0 out of 5 stars  Much more than a book on loss…


A sweet, simple and soft book… more than a book on loss, it’s a book that reminds us of what is important in life.

I was surprised by the quiet beauty that gently touched my heartstrings singing songs reminiscent of old times on my grampa’s farm…

The illustrations are equally touching and I’ve included a screenshot of one of my favorites.This one’s a keeper.



Thank you, Myste!

For those of you unfamiliar with Longfellow, allow me to introduce you.

Longfellow, the bravest and noblest weiner dog in the world… As our story begins, Longfellow is a puppy learning how to be a good friend to his human companions, Old Henry and Henry’s nurse Miss O’weeza Tuffy. By the end, he has grown old himself, but is still ready for one final adventure. What happens in between is an unforgettable and heartwarming tale that throws a tender light on the difficult truths of loss and longing as well as on our greatest hopes.


Book Review — The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying: Enhancing the End of Life

I am delighted to share with you a very thoughtful and reflective review of my book. This review appears in The Natural Transitions Magazine, which is available in both hard copy and E-version. To get your copy visit HERE!



By Lee Webster

What does it mean to die a good death? Sure, we all have a fair idea of the self-explanatory concept, but have we really thought out the nuts and bolts of it? Have we taken the time or made the effort in a clear, compassionate, and all-encompassing way to envision our own end or the end of a loved one?

The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying: Enhancing the End of Life is not a book for a good night’s read, cozying up to the fire. In fact, it’s not exactly a book at all in the conventional sense. Wagner begins by introducing the reader to ten characters who make up an imaginary death and dying support group. Each has his or her own baggage, concerns, fears, and life experiences.AGDD_front cover

In ten weeks—ten chapters—each expresses valuable and, at times, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to the group, while exploring the issues of death and dying. Wagner then invites the reader to participate in the virtual group, to write in an included workbook, and do check-ins, exercises, and homework that have been designed to stimulate the reader’s personal thoughts and observations while sharing in the struggles and epiphanies expressed by characters in the book.

For many of us, the prospect of facing our own mortality and that of those we love within a real group setting would be excruciating. The Amateur’s Guide makes a fictitious group event into a supported solitary pursuit, allowing the reader to wade through difficult emotional waters at his or her own pace, and to linger with thoughts and insights while simultaneously “observing” the reactions of other participants in the group—all on paper. It’s a unique approach to self-exploration within community.

“All of this,” Wagner writes, “is designed to help make the end of life less of an intimidating process and more of a rich, poignant transition.”

Written in an engaging, deeply human style, the characters come to life through both burdens and revelations. They remind us of the vastly different roles our families play in forming our outlook and capacity for internalizing and coping with our own deaths. They remind us that our historical and cultural context has formed our attitudes towards death and that a renegotiation is required if we are not comfortable with the prevailing messages.

They remind us that as much as we say we live in a death-defying culture, we spend an awful lot of time flirting with death. And that love becomes the intrinsic focus of the death experience—whether love is or was present becomes paramount in defining our relationship to death, both personally and universally.

There is no limit to the reminders provided in this book that will potentially bring readers into sharper consciousness regarding mortality and, more importantly, help integrate a deeper understanding of death into our waking lives through faithful participation in this valuable process.

The many practical (telling someone where to find the keys) and spiritual (are you in a right relationship with yourself, friends, family, God?) topics are presented to help center the reader on what is important in the moment to mindfully prepare for death. The exercises Wagner offers are worth the time and effort. After all, what other resource is likely to provide an opportunity to write your own obituary?


Lee Webster writes from her home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She is a frequent public speaker on the benefits of home funerals and green burial, a freelance writer, conservationist, gardener, quilt maker, and hospice volunteer.

Contact Lee at

Be sure to visit our colleagues at Natural Transitions and support their work.

Live As If You Are Dying

I’m delighted to share with you a new review of The Amateur’s Guide To Death And Dying. It appears on the blog of Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Mandy Traut.

Mandy Traut

Just like the famous Tim McGraw song, I good friend of mine recently reminded me to “live like I was dying.” Many of you know that I was a recent guest on Dr. Dick’s Sex Advice: Sex Advice with an Edge (Sex Wisdom Show). Well, my association with “Dr. Dick” (AKA Dr. Richard Wagner) developed into a good friendship. I see him as a role model and mentor. So, I was quite privileged when he asked me to review his new book, “The Amateur’s Guide to Death & Dying: Enhancing the End of Life.”

Richard is, not only a renowned sexologist – Board Certified by the American College of Sexologists, The American Board of Sexology, and The American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, he is the founder and former Executive Director of the nonprofit organization, PARADIGM; “Enhancing Life Near Death — an outreach and resource for terminally ill, chronically ill, elder and dying people.”AGDD_front cover

His book, “The Amateur’s Guide to Death & Dying: Enhancing the End of Life,” is developed to be a workbook for terminally ill patients going through the process of dying. But, the reader realizes early on that one need not be terminally ill to follow the exercises. As Richard reminds us, we all die at some point. Richard introduces the concept of “proactive dying,” referring to an attitude whereby one addresses one’s mortality head-on. Richard illustrates how honest discussions, education and preparation, and support from family and friends, can really benefit all of us. Rather than present a typical workbook with a sequence of exercises, Richard has adapted his own workshop, associated with PARADIGM INC, into written form! You, the reader, become a participant in his workshop as you explore questions of mortality, loss, sickness, and isolation. Eventually, you and your fellow participants come to see death as a part of life.

Whether going through the group process of exploring various issues, listening to presentations on preparing Estates and Advanced Directives, or discussing the stigma of talking about death and dying in the first place, the reader gets to reflect on his/her own thoughts and feelings about death and learns how to be prepared for end-of-life concerns. Richard normalizes death in the most compassionate, authentic, and empathic way. I appreciated that he, as a facilitator, found a balance between professionalism and disclosing his own personal stories, fears, hopes, and dreams to the group. Additionally, reading his book, I, not only reflected on my own fears related to death, but I strangely began to relate and befriend the other participants in the group. I felt as if I were walking the journey with them. It was humbling and moving, as well as educational and informative.

As the group workshop was coming to an end one of the participants read a poem with the theme of “live as if you are dying.” As I read (imagining myself in the room with everyone else), tears welled up in my eyes. By now, I knew the group members pretty well. I empathized with their fears, their anger, and their sense of loss. Then, I thought of my own life and relationships. Inwardly, I thought, “How often do we go through life on automatic?” It is true: Like sleep-walkers, we miss the little moments that make life precious. It takes a terminal illness or a traumatic event to wake most of us up!

In the end, I completed “The Amateur’s Guide to Dying” with several take-aways: To my readers and clients alike, I hope that you can ponder these ideas and see how they fit in your own lives.

1) It is smart to explore your end-of-life wishes while you are healthy and can make these important decisions.

2) Live as if you are dying – do not take one breath – one hug – one smile – for granted. After all, sometimes death comes when we least expect it.

3) Honor and cultivate your relationships – our relationships are at the core of a meaningful, worthwhile life.

One last word: Thank you, Richard for sharing such a fresh, revolutionary perspective with the rest of us. This is not an easy subject for most of us to swallow.

Complete Article HERE!

Mitch Carmody’s Review

I’m honored to share with you a remarkable new review of my book by an equally remarkable man, Mitch Carmody, CGSP. He is the author of Letters to My Son, turning loss to legacy.

The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying: Enhancing the End of Life
By Richard Wagner, Ph.D., ACS

I found Dr. Wagner’s book to be an incredible expose’ on the processes and mythologies of death and dying in a modern world. It was wonderful, refreshing, educational and enlightening, as well as entertaining.AGDD_front cover

The colorful cast of round table characters that he created from a compilation of real life people is quite remarkable; by the end of the book I had my favorite personas that I could not wait to hear from. The book engages you right from the get go and maintains that momentum throughout its pages. It made me laugh, it made me cry; it validated and put into simple words so may ideologies that I subscribe to in processes grief and facing one owns mortality.

This book is perfect for those individuals that may not like to attend or who are unable to attend a support group. For people faced with their own impeding death, this book is a brilliant concept. It allows for group interaction without actually being present.

This book is not only great for the dying and terminally ill but for caregiver, family and clergy who serve their needs. I highly endorse it and would recommend it to anyone seeking theological enlightenment. We are all amateurs when it comes to death and dying, for ourselves or those whom we love. Reading this book gives one encouragement to step outside the box of accepted social mores about death and dying and I believe can truly enhance the end of life for those faced with their own death. A great read for anyone; not one of us will escape from the eventual reality of our own death or those whom we love. This book can prepare us.

Mitch Carmody, CGSP
Author of Letters to My Son, turning loss to legacy
Creator of Proactive Grieving ©

Heartlight Studios

Facing Mortality Head On

I’m proud to announce the posting of an interview with me about my new book — The Amateur’s Guide To Death and Dying; Enhancing the End of Life. The interview is posted on IJ Wood’s site, Conscious Departures.

Click on the Conscious Departures banner above for the full interview.

Several months ago I became I became acquainted with Richard Wagner Ph.D and had the pleasure to read his book The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying.  His work with people facing end of life issues is inspired and admire his fearless approach to going into territory most consider taboo and awkward.  Richard Wagner has been working with terminally ill, chronically ill, elder and dying people in hospital, hospice, and home settings for over 30 years. He facilitates support groups for care-providers and clinical personnel, and provides grief counseling for survivors both individually and in group settings.

He founded Paradigm Programs Inc, an innovative nonprofit organization with a mission to be an outreach and resource for terminally ill, chronically ill, elder and dying people. He was honored with the prestigious University of California San Francisco Chancellor’s Award for Public Service in 1999 for his work with sick, elder and dying people.

His book is a valuable contribution to the body of work available for coming to terms with end of life issues and one I wish I had when K was alive. Having been the primary caregiver and the one person who was with K day and night using a tool like this would have been invaluable. There comes a point where a person just doesn’t have the strength to do much, but they still do want to communicate. I could imagine K and I reading it together (me reading it aloud), and doing the exercises.  It could have provided a great format for the both of us to have those important and uncomfortable, conversations in an engaging way. At the very least it would have provided us a good platform to work with.

This is not a passive book. Richard Wagner takes an approach that makes the reader part of the story.  In it you become one of the participants in his work group along with a number of people coming from different cultural backgrounds dealing with a variety of issues from cancer to old age. You are a participant, not a fly on the wall, and if you allow yourself to enter his world and take the exercises to heart you will find yourself going through a very fulfilling process. For this reason I feel that this book must be approached when you or your loved one has the appropriate energy and mental acuity to take it all in. There are 10 members in the group, and if you intend to follow their contribution to the group it takes some effort.

I was so impressed with Richard’s approach and the experience behind the book that I felt I needed to meet him and do an interview. We met by phone. Here are his responses to my questions:

IJ: In your years as a health professional, what do you consider the biggest lessons you’ve learned about caring for someone with a terminal illness?

RW: I tend to lump health care professionals into two groups — healing and helping.  As a psychotherapist, I consider myself as part of the later group — those who help.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that precious few of us are able to face our mortality on our own.  This tends to complicate an already difficult situation, because few of us who are facing our mortality have people around willing to walk through this with us.

When I started to be present to sick, elder and dying people some 30+ years ago I began to see certain patterns develop.  Despite the uniqueness of each death I noticed two things that all these deaths had in common; they were difficult and lonely affairs.  Difficult because, in our culture we have a hard time recognizing when things are coming to an end, especially the things we enjoy.  This is a problem because being unable to acknowledge the end of something makes saying good-bye and thank you virtually impossible.  They were lonely affairs, because those who were dying often felt useless and disconnected.  It was like they were dead before they were dead.

IJ: How has this affected you personally?

RW: This had a profound effect on me.  Because I soon began to realize that the marginal status our culture assigns to the end of life, with all its fear, anxiety, isolation and anger is inevitably what each of us will inherit in our dying days.  I either had to come up with an alternative approach, or I would crash and burn.  I saw so many valiant fellow healing and helping professionals burn out; they just couldn’t face their inner turmoil and grief any longer so they had to leave the work they were doing.  And I did not want that to happen to me.

I figured there had to be a better way to deal with this fundamental fact of life.  So I decided to take a fresh look at my own mortality, because that seemed to be the most likely place to begin if I wanted to help others face their mortality.  In time, I became less anxious.  The monstrous thing I feared for so long was being transformed.  I was able to sit with death and not be afraid.  Death was no longer the enemy, she was becoming what St. Francis called her ‘sister death.’  Besides, death links us to the great round of nature.  I found that comforting.

When I began to ask the sick, elder and dying people I was working with if they wanted to join me in this endeavor I discovered most were up for the adventure.  I mean it was a no-brainer for most.  They knew better than I that few opportunities exist for them to connect with others similarly challenged in a purposeful life-affirming way.  I was encouraging them to take a lead role in orchestrating their finales; they were no longer expected to be unobtrusive, dependent on the kindness of others and to wait patiently for the curtain to fall.

IJ: What was your goal and inspiration behind writing the book The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying?

RW: Let me take you back to the early 1990’s.  I was successful in getting some like-minded people together for mortality-oriented support groups.  Initially there was some resistance, however, because most of the people who joined my early groups were only familiar with disease-based groups.  People with cancer met with other people with cancer if they met with anyone at all; people with HIV only met with other people with HIV if they met with anyone at all.  But I was proposing something really radical.  I was suggesting that facing one’s mortality had very little to do with a disease process, it had to do with simply being alive.  I had to keep reminding them that the thing that connected us was our mortality, not a disease, or aging process.

I figured if our focus is our mortality, we wouldn’t get bogged down with the medical issues we faced as “patients.”  This freed us up to find practical solutions to the end-of-life concerns each of us had.  And we would be able to receive the support we needed to design our own strategy for successfully navigating our final life passage.

By the mid 1990’s I had enough of these groups under my belt to create a pilot program for a nonprofit organization I had founded, PARADIGM; Enhancing Life Near Death.  I called it the Access Program.  It was seminar/support group hybrid, a two-hour a week commitment for ten weeks.

With the help of a handful of experts in their field, doctors, clergy, nurses, therapists and lawyers, participants were able to face their mortality head on.  They gained perspective on numerous issues related to modern dying … whether it’s filling out a durable power of attorney form, answering provocative questions about sexuality and intimacy, completing a death anxiety survey or personally designing a unique end-of-life plan … they were totally involved and engaged.  And this had a startlingly positive effect on the group members.

After a few years of successfully doing these groups I realized that I was reaching only a very tiny percentage of the people who might benefit from such a program.  Even when I was doing two groups simultaneously, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, I wasn’t able to keep up with the demand.  The only solution was to write a book.

I figured that if I could simulate participation in an actual PARADIGM, group in workbook form, my potential outreach would be enormous.

IJ: Who are you gearing this book towards?

RW: The short answer is — all those mortals out there.

My workbook is primarily for those currently facing their mortality — chronically, terminally ill, elder and dying people.  But concerned family and friends, healing and helping professionals, lawyers, clergy, teachers, students, and those grieving a death will all benefit from joining in.  Because, as we all know, none of us is getting out of here alive.”

IJ: The way you designed the book is unique.  What was your thought process for coming up with this idea?

RW: As I mentioned, it was imperative that The Amateur’s Guide To Death And Dying simulate participation in an actual PARADIGM, group.  Just writing a book about my experiences or my philosophy about living and dying simply wouldn’t cut it.  There were already a lot of those kinds of books in the marketplace.

If I was going to do this, it was going to have to be something really unique.  It was going to have to fundamentally change the conversation.  It was going to have to give those who were without a voice a chance to speak out about their concerns.  And it would have to advocate for the holistic self-determination for those facing the end of their life.

The most exceptional aspect of The Amateur’s Guide is its format.  Readers become part of an on-the-page support group.  Ten diverse fictional characters, representing a broad spectrum of age, race, and life situations inspire strong reader identification and provide essential role models for enhancing life near death.  This unique presentation exposes the reader to a myriad of life situations and moral dilemmas that arise as one faces his or her mortality head on.

Besides the group process, six presenters, each an expert in his/her field, offer timely advice designed to help the reader make the end of life less an intimidating process and more a rich, poignant transition.

IJ: What are you wanting people to take away from the process you put them through?

RW: I hope the reader will be able to celebrate our shared belief that living well and dying well are one and the same thing.  I hope the reader will find his/her voice as well as the confidence he/she needs to engage others in their end of live conversation.

I know that conscious dying has become kind of a buzzword these days and maybe it’s even lost some of its original meaning.  I think conscious dying means learning how to relinquish control before circumstances wrestle it away from us.  In many cultures detachment is an art form.  In many religious traditions detachment is a virtue.  Perhaps there is something here for each of us to consider.  Ultimate control has little or nothing to do with being able to manipulate externals, which I’m sorry to say, also includes our bodies.  Ultimate control is about inner peace and wellbeing.  And these are not dependent on being “well” or being “whole”.

And just to be clear, I’m not talking about adjusting deathbed pillows so that dying people can strike heroic poses for the edification of onlookers.  I’m talking about achieving a good death in the context of real dying—with all its unpredictability, disfigurement, pain, and sorrow.

IJ:What sort of reactions have you had so far with the book?

It’s all been exceptionally positive so far, even the reviews I’ve been getting from my end of life professional peers.  This kind of surprised me at first, because the book is such a radical departure from everything else in the genre.  But everyone seems to be enjoying the refreshingly new take on this age-old problem.  They love the interactive aspect of the workbook.  People are telling me that the fun, engaging yet poignant style of the book is helping them work through their own issues.

IJ: For further support, after reading the book what do you suggest people can do?

RW: Here’s the thing.  If you read through the whole book, if you participate in all the discussions, if you do all the homework and exercises you will, at the end of the book, be prepared for and have the confidence to discuss all your end of life concerns with the significant others in your life.

You will have everything you need to break open a discussion with your lawyer about estate planning and advanced directives.  You’ll have everything you need to address your intimacy needs with your intimate partner.  You will have everything you need to open a discussion with your spiritual advisor about your faith.  You will have everything you need to have a frank discussion with your physician about palliative care, comfort care and your thoughts about assisted dying.

The Amateur’s Guide To Death And Dying can be used to start your own group of people who want to face their mortality; even if that group is made up of just one other person.  You can see the ripple effect this will have, can’t you?  I hope the reader will take every opportunity to share what s/he learned with all those who might benefit, because, as you know, there are a whole lot of amateurs out there.

If you are interested in purchasing the book here’s the link:  The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying

Complete Article HERE!