I just finished reading another book about death and dying – Autobiography of Dying by Archie Hanlon. I was touched by its practicalities and its realness with respect to death.
At the age of 46, Mr. Hanlan finds himself crying against a tile wall in a hospital laboratory. It is a grief so terrible that he cannot expose the other patients to it.
“You’re about to leave everything you love, to interrupt whatever you were doing, to give up all you hoped for.”
Not Ready and Not Natural
Mr. Hanlan is not ready, he says, to die. His family cannot afford it, financially or emotionally. His children need his guidance and support; his wife needs his love and companionship. He has not done enough for them, or for himself.
It is not “natural” to die in his middle‐40’s. He is filled with rage against an “unfairness” that he cannot fight. He has a disease that nobody knows anything about. He is dying in the dark.
Then Mr. Hanlan makes an amazing discovery – he has to help other people with his dying. Although many of his friends are politically or sexually liberated, very few of them are liberated about dying. He had to teach them how to react to him, how to be with him.
“Dying is so momentous. I’ll tell people what it’s like. I’ll help them to prepare for it.”
He keeps a record of what is happening to him and sends it to a publisher. The first publisher rejects it. His dying is not interesting enough.
Readers of “Autobiography of Dying” may disagree. I’ve read a lot of books on dying, some more profound, but this one does something to domesticate death, to tame it to the point we can at least look at it.
Mr. Hanlan was a professor of social work. He perceives the big picture of his situation and is able to shape the shapeless.
Some of his recommendations are brilliant, e.g. medical people should be “trained for uncertainty,” like dying that can be treated only with spontaneous sympathy and compassion. His diagnosis of “the unrewarding patient” (a patient who ….) is incisive. His criticism of some of the ideas of Elisabeth Kubler‐Ross is right on.
Mr. Hanlan’s words are moving such as when he observes, “the psychological preparations for dying are not very different from the psychological preparations for living.” Or when he says, “dying did not bring me any new truths, but it did deepen the old ones.”
Mr. Hanlan died in 1973, at the age of 48. In the end he suggested it comes down to this: “Dying is lonely. You want all humanity to drop what they are doing and come to see you off, like friends seeing you off on a boat or a train.”
But even if they could, you would still have to make the trip by yourself.
Two thumbs up for this jewel of a read.