Death goes in and out of fashion. The topic goes dormant for a few years, and then someone calls it forth again: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross with her disciplined “On Death and Dying” in 1969; Susan Sontag with her angry but profound “Illness as Metaphor” in 1978 and the empathetic follow-up “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” in 1988; Derek Humphry, with his suicide handbook “Final Exit” in 1991; Sherwin Nuland with his magisterial “How We Die” in 1993; more recently, Joan Didion with her agonizingly precise “The Year of Magical Thinking” in 2005; and Atul Gawande with his humane “Being Mortal” in 2014. Each of these books argues, one way or another, for a continuum between life and its conclusion. The gloss of youthful vitality can persuade us that life is for the living, but life is also for the dying, and sometimes that ultimate punctuation escalates our anxiety and deprives us of final dignity. Time and again, we must clarify our individual and collective beliefs about how the last chapter of our life changes the rest of the narrative.
Perhaps we are in denial about death, but perhaps at times we are willing to struggle and grapple with our immortality and begin to study death and its meaning. The language of “eternal life” seems to have been among religion’s chief selling points. My own view is that we are neither better at dying nor worse at it than we once were. I am grateful to live in a time when medicine has given us more time together. I would prefer not to have a final eight months of heroic measures that leave me in fruitless pain, but I am also in favor of longevity. Life will always feel short even if we could expect to live two centuries.
Review the many books, movies and excerpts that deal with Living while Dying under the Resources section of this website. Please update me with additions as I am always adding and reflecting on ways to help us all deal with the final chapter.