Journalist Katy Butler first wrote about death in her 2013 memoir, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, which charted the decline and death of her father. Six years later, she offers a tremendously helpful follow-up, The Art of Dying Well: A Practical Guide to a Good End of Life. This substantial book, written for the aging and those who love them, offers a stage-by-stage look at the path toward death.
It might not seem like fun reading, but the salience of the topic is undeniable: Seventy-five percent of Americans want to die at home, but fewer than 33 percent do so. Butler points out that basic documentation can ensure a patient’s end-of-life medical intentions, yet more than 70 percent of us haven’t filled out the paperwork. Cultural conversations overvalue dramatic medical interventions that traumatize both the dying and those who love them. Butler writes, “There is a way to a peaceful, empowered, humane death, even in an era of high-technology medicine.” She goes on to offer a road map for the journey. Organized into seven chapters that begin with “Resilience” and end with “Active Dying,” Butler’s book is a nuts-and-bolts guide to supporting ourselves and each other through the final stages of life. For her, the path toward a good death begins years in advance, and no detail is too small.
For most of us, the shift toward death is invisible, frightening and largely idiosyncratic to our own circumstances. What Butler offers here is an overview of the terrain and helpful commentary about empowering, meaningful actions for people in a wide range of circumstances. If you are aging or love someone who is, this is a book to add to your list.