This book was introduced to me by a fellow writing pal when she read my letter to the press on the subject ‘The Art of Dying”, in which I lamented the stigma of talking about death in a death avoidance society. A library book club was about to discuss this book but unfortunately, I couldn’t make it due to work.
Upon reading my letter, I was accused of being insensitive to discuss my relatives’ health issue in public by an aunt, thereby missing the subject and reinforcing my point : You can talk about the impending death of other people, just not someone with whom we are closely related to.
This is in sharp contrast to children. A friend’s 5 yo son asked his grandmother where his aunt (her daughter) had gone to, and Grandma replied that Aunt had passed away. Why? He persisted. She had been sick, she replied. “But you are always sick,” he said to his Grandma who needs dialysis, “why didn’t you die?” Grandma related the tale to me, more amused than offended.
This book is a compilation of emails between two individuals, which started after Irene’s friends, a couple, were brutally murdered. Steve was a journalist then covering the case but had become a masseur for palliative patients under The Hand to Heart Project. In their correspondence spanning three years, they discussed topics such as, is dying an injustice, how to handle pain at end of life, caregiving, sudden death, after death, grief and mortality. Irene had three very ill relatives, a brother in-law suffering from cancer, mother-in-law and father suffering from dementia, and all three died within that period of time.
I don’t know if the Western context made the subject less taboo in USA and Europe and I regretted not attending the book club meeting to find out how Asian society discussed death (although being in an English book club would deemed the members more “Westernised” than the majority of conservative Asians in Singapore.
What I took away from the book are some quotes:
“What would it mean to lose someone whose life I hold dear? It would be painful beyond words. But it would not be something done to me. I would not be a victim of that person’s death. I would hope to see myself as a beneficiary of his life, however long and short it was. And I would move on in my own life to the next part, the part that includes that person as a vivid, colourful, treasured memory.”
“…the value of trying to live our relationships honestly and fully at all moments, not just the big moments. …think of all moments as big moments. Maybe all moments when we are really tuned in to what matters are the big moments. That’s one of my definitions of paradise: being completely tuned in to the present.” – on not being able to say goodbye to a dying friend.
An exercise : “At first we were asked to visualised ourselves on our deathbeds at a time many years out – say 20-25 years. Who is with us? Where are we? Imagine the scene in detail. Now repeat the exercise again, but with the time many years closer. Ten years, Picture everything. Do it again, only now, the time is just one year off. Ten do it once more, except the time is now.”
“If I can bring the importance of each moment to each moment I live, if I can bring the intention of compassion to each relationship in my life, then I might see the most important benefit of accepting death as part of life. I might not just get to die a peaceful and meaningful death. I might get to live a more peaceful and meaningful life, That would be the gift of mortality.”
“…gratitude for having felt alive while I was alive.”
“It’s having my head and heart in the right place right now. The rest is completely out of my control.”
Working in a VWO which is focused on Mindfulness has it benefits as I noticed the book reinforced many times the importance of being in the present. That aside, I noticed a depressive restlessness while I was reading this book – a lump formed in my throat, or unshed tears as I read the narratives describing the last days of people dying, people I don’t even know. Yet somehow I am touched as they are teaching me something about death.
I need to move on to my next book – Joy On Demand!