Review: The Art of Dying Well – A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life

Author photo Katy Butler and book cover

By Trish Rodriguez*

I have to confess that I am a Katy Butler fan. When I started the journey to become an End of Life Doula, her Knocking on Heaven’s Door was one of the first books that I read. I didn’t so much read the book as devoured it, often catching a sob in my throat as I read her deeply personal account of the horror show that became her fathers final years. I admired the courage and honesty of the parts of the book that were memoir, and the research on the current culture of American healthcare with respect to death. I agreed that our way of dying in the good ol’ USA has come to leave something to be desired.

In her newest work The Art of Dying Well – A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life, Katy picks up the narrative in a new and accessible way. She divides the process of moving toward the end into seven unique segments defined not so much by age but by ability and functionality. At the beginning of each of these chapters she has a list of statements and suggests that if many of these apply to you now, this might be where you find yourself. I found this approach fresh and, best of all, non-threatening. This might be just the way to start a conversation with a unwilling family member.

In the first segment, aptly titled Resilience, we learn that in this stage of well being we can still dramatically impact our health, longevity, and ultimately the quality of our death. By building reserves (aka altering what we eat and whether we’re active enough), finding allies in preventative medicine, and increasing our circle of friends and acquaintances, we are still in the drivers seat with regard to how things will go for us as our situation changes. This perspective gives lots of practical advice for those who may think there is plenty of time.

With each ongoing chapter comes an inevitable decline – not according to any decade of life or disease process – but according to naturally decreasing functionality. I like that she is careful to follow this definition, as people age as they darn well please, and I personally know 90 year olds who are still more capable than I am. This lets you find your home page, so to speak, without feeling like a failure or self fulfilling a prophecy to act your age. Every chapter offers practical advice; about healthcare, money, housing, and all those pesky details like advanced directives and wills. In nearly every chapter there are personal accounts of folks who managed things well, or not so well, and lots of food for thought.

There was a great deal of material that wasn’t new to me, but I work with dying  people. In my every day life, I am always shocked at how hard working, responsible people don’t bother with a will or advanced directive… because? They aren’t going to die? Or they’re not going to die tomorrow? This book may be just the ticket to get you going, or to give to that parent who is dragging their feet about preparing for anything. With a helpful glossary and pages and pages of useful references included, this will certainly be a ‘go to’ book in my personal library and in my practice.

* Special correspondent, Trish Rodriguez,  is an End of Life Doula and hospice vigil volunteer in Anacortes, WA.

Mother grapples with grief in ‘Where Reasons End’

By Michael Magras

It’s not surprising that someone whose whole life revolves around words would turn to literature in a time of tragedy to make sense of her suffering. The paradox is that the person most likely to seek solace from words is also the most likely to realize their insufficiency.

One such person is the unnamed narrator of “Where Reasons End,” Yiyun Li’s new novel. The 44-year-old narrator is a writer of stories and a grieving mother. For reasons that are never explained, her 16-year-old son, whom she calls Nikolai, “a name he had given himself,” killed himself only a few months earlier — a painful parallel to real life, as Li’s own 16-year-old son committed suicide in 2017

The novel is a series of imagined conversations between mother and son. From the start, we learn that the mother is agonizingly self-aware, both of herself and of the possible futility of these conversations.

That and the parallel to Li’s life are what make the experience of reading this work so powerful: the knowledge that the narrator needs the comfort of words yet senses their limitations. “I was a generic parent grieving a generic child lost to an inexplicable tragedy,” she says in the opening chapter. She seeks specificity, the need to “meet in a world unspecified in time and space … a world made up by words, and words only.”

One of the most arresting aspects of this novel is the way in which Li subverts expectations. One might expect Nikolai to be a sweet boy offering relentless comfort to his grieving mother. He’s a charmer, all right, a precocious son who painted whimsical landscapes, played the oboe and liked classical music and showtunes. And he was a bad speller who labeled a folder of songs “Edith Pilaf.”

But he has a sardonic edge that keeps him from seeming too precious. When his writer mother tells him that so many people miss him, Nikolai says she’s succumbing to the lure of clichés and admonishes her with, “You promised that you would understand.” When he accuses her of wanting him to feel sad for himself, he adds, chillingly, “I’m not as sad as you think. Not anymore.”

The dialogues in “Where Reasons End” cover a wide range of topics. Mother and son discuss love and memory and whether those capacities really do keep people alive forever. They discuss the capriciousness of time. Nikolai chides her for her dislike of adjectives, which she defends by saying that nouns, not adjectives, preserve memories. Besides, “I oppose anything judgmental,” she says, “and adjectives are opinionated words.”

Much of this book is devoted to words, which is not surprising given that its narrator lives by them: “Words said to me. Words not meant for me but picked up by me in any case. Words in their written form. Words that make sense and words that make nonsense.” When one is in search of helpful words, poets are a good place to start, as their facility often crystallizes hard-to-express truths. Indeed, the narrator references many poets, including Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop — the novel’s title comes from Bishop’s poem “Argument” — and Wallace Stevens.

Even poets, however, provide limited comfort, and the mother depicted here knows it. This realization compounds her grief as much as it ameliorates. “Words provided to me — loss, grief, sorrow, bereavement, trauma — never seemed to be able to speak precisely of what was plaguing me,” she says. “One can and must live with loss and grief and sorrow and bereavement.”

Later, she adds, “We feel at a loss for words when they can’t do fully what we want them to.” To which Nikolai offers as wise a defense of words as one is likely to find. “They never can,” he says, but, “Why not make do with the percentage they can achieve?”

The book gets repetitive after a while — much is made of the Latin derivations of words, and some of Nikolai’s dialogue is too stilted even for a sophisticated teen — yet its message is nonetheless a sobering one. Nothing can ever fill the hollows formed by tragedy, yet the desire to fill them is every bit as keen as the loss. If even a fraction of the emptiness is replaced, then the quest is worth the effort.

Late in the novel, the narrator quotes Stevens’s poem “This Solitude of Cataracts”: “He wanted the river to go on flowing the same way, To keep on flowing.” Anyone who has ever lost a loved one — that would be all of us — will relate. If only they were still here to keep the river of our lives flowing as it once had.

Complete Article HERE!

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

bittersweetblessing

 

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.

 

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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.

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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
turningleafhomefunerals@gmail.com

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 ©
www.heartlightstudios.com
www.proactivegrieving.org

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