Books about death: Memoirs
Here at DEATH.io we’re always looking for ways to tell a story. Either through a funeral, a blog post or a book, we appreciate those who want to talk about death. Here we look at some of the best non-fiction in recent years which tackles the modern healthcare system, our approach to death as a society and personal reflections on terminal illness and dying.
Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Happens in the End by Atul Gawande
In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Gawande uses a mix of his own medical cases and personal experience to explore the contradiction at the heart of our modern healthcare system. As we’ve become used to more people surviving illness and disease, when people are beyond help and do die there’s usually a larger stigma surrounding it. Usually, we don’t prepare adequately for the worst case scenario.
Through his daily life as a surgeon, Gawande looks uncompromisingly at the cases where a family would want to prolong the life of someone who no longer had a good quality of life. The book deals head-on with the uncomfortable fact that, as Gawande writes, “Our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the basic comforts they most need.” Through the course of the book, Gawande realises this includes his own family’s approach to dying.
Gawande is at his most perceptive in the parts which deal with his father’s own terminal illness, showing us the need for openness and honesty when facing death. At a challenging point in his father’s illness Gawande asks him outright, “How much are you willing to go through just to have a chance of living longer?” This is the biggest question in a book which hopes to change the way we treat dying.
Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
In this set of four short essays, the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks looks back on his life and sets out his thoughts on what he’s learnt. After being given a terminal illness diagnosis, however, Sacks turns his mind to gratitude.
The simple title of the collection reflects the clarity with which Sacks at all points examines his life. In his simple, lucid style he wishes to “see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.” By receiving the news and realising he has only a short amount of time left, Sacks can now begin with “clarity and plain speaking” to “straighten my accounts with the world”.
Safe in the knowledge that he’s going to die, Sacks realises that some of his newly discovered gratitude involuntarily overwhelms him. He describes the thought that now ‘I feel glad to be alive, the thought “I’m glad I’m not dead!” sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect.’ There’s an unstoppable sense of joy, which in turn becomes quite poignant, only because Sacks knows it can’t last.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
In this memoir, Paul Kalanithi with unwavering honesty details the moment he received a terminal lung cancer diagnosis at the age of 36, and how this affected the way he looked back on his life before and after it.
Published a few months after his death, throughout the memoir Kalanithi realises that, after his diagnosis, he kept coming back to the same questions that preoccupied him in his younger years. Rather than spending his waking hours feeling (rightfully) sorry for himself, Kalanithi returns to the question of, “What makes human life meaningful?” and, as his illness progresses, “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?”
Both profound and level-headed, the book is structured around Kalanithi’s short career as a neurosurgeon and his love of literature. Using the support of case studies and poetry alike, the book is an account of his acceptance of his death. Facing up to death, he ponders the “many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world”. This is that account.
With the End in Mind: Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial by Kathryn Mannix
Touching on some of the more urgent questions facing modern healthcare, Kathryn Mannix takes us through her passion for a “better death” with personal case studies. With a background in healthcare, Mannix chooses over thirty stories through which to weave her argument that the dying process should be treated as something unremarkably natural.
Mannix intimately details the process of dying, in whatever form it takes. Focusing on the more ordinary events at the end of life – a young girl sews a cushion for her mum; another woman lives out her last days by regularly dancing in her kitchen – Mannix is able to push her argument for a more therapeutic, less medicalised end-of-life through the stories of people just like us.
With an emphasis on planning ahead throughout, Mannix calls for a rethink of the way we approach those who are dying and our own death. The people she meets aren’t painted as heroic, bravely battling their illness. Instead, With the End in Mind sets out the possibility that we can face death with openness and clarity.
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
In his last book, a collection of essays written for Vanity Fair documenting his chemotherapy treatments, controversial thinker Christopher Hitchens takes a look at his own death. Never one to back away from a struggle or compromise on uncomfortable truths, Hitchens begins by facing up to death with his trademark wry style:
“I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse.”
Throughout the course of the short collection, Hitchens submits himself to every treatment going – it’s made immediately clear that Hitchens simply doesn’t want to die, and there’s often a lot of outright shifts in tone because of this. Hilarity ensues when Hitchens has to answer to do-gooders and insult-flingers alike, realising that, “When you fall ill, people send you CDs. Very often, in my experience, these are by Leonard Cohen.” As he gradually starts to lose his voice, however, Hitchens writes of the way dying means not just pain, but slowly losing your identity and dignity.
The last section of the book is made up of jottings and half-finished notes. Mostly made up of attacks on various religions, details of punishing treatments and profound, off-the-cuff remarks, it’s like reading Christopher Hitchens only with the verve sapped out it. An alternative read to the more outrightly uplifting books in our list, Mortality shows us a more personally argumentative stance towards death.
If you would like to get hold of any the books mentioned in the article, click the image to find it on Amazon.
These are books which look at death through personal stories. When it comes to that conversation about death, stories are guaranteed to provide a talking point.
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If any of the books have made you thought about getting help and support, or even taking control of your death, then be sure to check out the rest of DEATH.io.