Dying For Beginners


No one wants to talk about death. Well, almost no one.

Apparently I do.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly have not figured out how to make peace with the fact that no one gets out of here alive. And I do believe that people can have healthy deaths (thanks to Dr. Louise Edwards for introducing me to that idea). I think about it often, trying to grasp an understanding of something that is not tangible nor quantifiable.

Thousands of physicians, nurses, social workers and volunteers dedicate their lives to helping others cope with loss. Along with the several authors that I’m about to mention to those of you who are curious enough to continue reading. Despite death being an inevitable part of life, it isn’t often recognized as such, and it isn’t pleasant. We tend to avoid the topic, because the pain is just too unbearable.

When you are experiencing the loss of a loved one it seems impossible that people everywhere suffer through this everyday. As scary as it is, no one escapes it.

New Hampshire Hospice Doctor and Palliative Care expert, Patrick Clary, has written several articles on end of life care as well as this book of poetry Dying for Beginners. (His poems have also been published in JAMA, NE Journal of Medicine and Journal of Medical Humanities.) He writes with a callused sweetness that beckons the deep seated nostalgia that lies in each of us. His poems will take you though a series of lives and deaths, each healing in their own resolution. (One example: Bury me in a loud tie.)

One of my favorites in particular starts with: You know how it freaks me out when people break appointments

And continues: Why did you die? You were forty the year I was born / But you kept getting younger / We were nearly the same age the last time I saw you / … Even your nurses were in love with you / … / Do you think it’s going to be / That much fun here without you? You could drive a truck through / The hole you’ve made in our lives.

I was very fortunate to be working with an incredible woman when I lost my father. It was one of the hardest things I have ever been through, and it left me numb to the world around me. There is something so strange about finding yourself closer in line to the grave. For me it was a combination of being in my 20s, having lost all my grandparents, several aunts and uncles and then my dad. This co-worker, M, was a former hospice volunteer and she was not scared to talk to me about what I was going though. She asked me questions about it all, encouraged me to talk about my Dad and to remember him. This really struck me, so many people did not know what to say to me, so they said nothing (which I understood of course). Sometimes the universe just has a way of doing things.

I asked M to suggest some books for this post and here are some of her recommendations:

On Death and Dying, by Elizabeth Kuber-Ross. (She said any of her books are wonderful, especially On Grief and Grieving.)

Final Gifts, by Maggie Callahan and Patricia Kelly (both authors were Hospice Nurses).

And Dying for Beginners, is one that I found in a small independent bookstore in NH (RiverRun Bookstore). I have always loved poetry (and all things New Hampshire), so this one is special to me.

It was traumatic to be with my father as he passed. We knew something was going to happen when all of the power in the north end of Manchester went out while he was in ICU (the evening before he died). My dad was not one to do anything half ass.  (How many people do you meet that were democratic nominee for governor in their mid-30s or asked to serve on the presidents export council as a sole proprietor* after a being raised by a widowed mom on welfare?) He was always so brave and strong, he did not seem to fear anything, yet loved his family more than anything. I was holding his hand when he passed, talking to him and praying, along with my mother and four siblings. I wanted nothing more than for him to stay with us forever, to wake up from a bad dream.

I wasn’t ready. I’m still not. But it does help to know that I’m not alone in my experience, as separate and unique as they each are.

Do you have any books on grief and dying that you recommend?

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* I use this term to define that he was the sole owner, I’m not defining it versus LLC etc, a point that I’m sure not a single one of you give a rat’s ass about, but I decided to clarify anyway.