Several recent books, most notably Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, urge us to ask ourselves how we can live a good life, recognizing that death is a seamless part of our existence. Two compelling new accounts highlight individuals struggling with this question.
LESSONS FROM HOSPICE
In On Living, hospice chaplain Kerry Egan begins her vocation with some resistance, unsure that in her own brokenness she can provide comfort to those who are broken by life and waiting for death. Reluctant to talk about religion with her patients, she soon discovers that simply listening to their stories—of their families, of their losses and regrets, of love—heals her and them: “I don’t know if listening to other people’s stories as they die can make you wise, but I do know that it can heal your soul. I know this because those stories healed mine.”
Egan shares the story of Gloria, a mother who’s been withholding a secret from her son and wants to reveal it as a gesture of love in her final days. A patient named Reggie expresses regret about a life that’s been “empty and alone,” leaving him without a single friend or family member to offer comfort. Then there’s Cynthia, who struggles to accept her overweight body even as she’s dying; like all people who are dying, Egan observes, Cynthia faces the reality that she will “no longer be able to experience this world in this body, ever again.” The lesson for those of us not dying, of course, is that living fully means embracing our imperfect selves with joy and love while we still can.
Egan’s evocative and eloquent book reminds us that we are defined by the stories we tell, and those stories often reveal how life can be “beautiful and crushing” at the same time.
DEATH WITH DIGNITY
Deborah Ziegler’s poignant and fierce Wild and Precious Life celebrates the life of her daughter, Brittany Maynard, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2014 at the age of 29.
When Ziegler first learned of her daughter’s condition, she ran screaming into the dark night of hopelessness, praying that God would take her and not her daughter. She refused to accept her daughter’s impending death and wanted to pursue any treatment that would extend her life.
Brittany, however, taught her mother the one truth we most often avoid in such situations: A good death is part of a life well lived. After Brittany learned the gravity of her situation, she moved from California to Oregon, where a death with dignity law allowed her to make her own choices on how and when her life would end. Her decision prompted a nationwide discussion of assisted suicide and a patient’s right to make end-of-life decisions.
Skillfully interspersing stories of Brittany’s growing up with a touching account of her final year, Ziegler reminds us, in Brittany’s own words, of the real lesson we need to learn: “Live your lives well. Accept the sorrow with the joy, the ineffable grief with the love.”