Saturday, August 10, 2013


My best friend's brother is dying.
The life support systems have been unplugged and all treatments discontinued

He has been moved to a hospice care center.
When I talked to her yesterday, his family was all there with him.

As my own parents and the parents of my friends age, as my friends and I age, as well, death becomes more prominent in our peripheral vision,  in our conscious and unconscious thinking, and in our daily  lives.

In the Western world we dance around death, never quite landing on its truth and reality.
We don't have open conversations or use clear language to discuss death.

We talk about going to sleeppassing or passing on/over.
We say If something happens...
We say he has gone to the next world, gone to be with Jesus/God, gone to heaven.

Rarely do we say He died.

The first book I remember reading about death was the groundbreaking, now classic, On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

 I think I was in my twenties. I don't know remember why I was reading it at the time. (I read lots of unlikely books--ones that no one I know is choosing, but me.  That includes both novels and nonfiction--thus my delight in finding "book soul mates" with similar tastes.)

Kubler-Ross confirms this natural avoidance and fear that we have of death and notes surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, that this is not new.

When we look back in time and study old cultures and people, we are impressed that death has always been distasteful to man and  will probably always be. From a psychiatrist view this is very understandable and can perhaps best be explained by our basic knowledge, that in our unconscious, death is never possible in regard to ourselves. It is inconceivable  for our unconscious to imagine an actual ending of our own life here on earth... ( Kubler-Ross, 16)

In her work and studies with terminally ill and elderly patients,  she examines this fear of death, and first outlined those now familiar stages that most pass through in the process of dying: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  She also considers our responses and reactions to death as the family and friends of the dying.

She went on to write many  books on the subject of death and its aftermath, mourning and grief, and was also one of the co-founders the hospice movement.

Despite this obvious and documented fear of death, as a society, we have lots of ways we look death in the eye and pretend we are not afraid.

Note our fascination with horror movies (the scarier the better),with terrifying amusement park rides, with dangerous sports and daredevil antics, including sky-diving, zip-lining, big-air skateboarding or bicycling, and many other ways to live dangerously, defying death, either vicariously or actually.

Perhaps, it is this fear-yet-defiance that attracts us to The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak, in which Death is the narrator.  We look at Nazi Germany through  Death's eyes-- we see bodies he collects from the gas chambers, soldiers from the battlefields, victims of bombings, and those left orphaned. He focuses on orphan Liesl, and the novel becomes her story--she is the book thief of the title.

Other young adult novels help us to look death in the face, as well.

Recently, I read (and loved) The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, in which Hazel , a teenage survivor of stage cancer faces her own death, and that of her support group members, as well. As she falls in love, she also wrestles with the universal questions connected with impending death. Despite the dismal subject, Green treats this subject with both compassion and humor.

In Thirteen Reasons Why Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, Hannah Baker, a young girl who has committed suicide, has left a series of tapes to be listened to and then passed on to the next person on the list she has included in the box of tapes. Each successive person has a connection to the reasons she took her own life--something said, something done-- or not said or not done. The reasons build up to form a picture of a life that became hopeless and unbearable. This compelling book forces us to consider how we treat others.

Facing death ourselves or marking the death of loved ones inspires us to explore our feelings, make sense of the related events and responses, and to simply share.

Thus we have several books of poetry that have arisen in the context of death.

I immediately think of  Nikki Giovanni's Acolytes: Poems, Jane Yolen's The Radiation Sonnets: For My Love, in Sickness and in Health, as well as Things to Say to a Dead Man: Poems at the End of a Marriage and After, Mary Oliver's Thirst: Poems,  and more recently, Maurice Sendak's My Brother's Book .

See related post, Writing in the Context of Our Lives.

Just as talking about death and dying is difficult for adults and teenagers, it proves confusing and complex for young children as well. Several books help us tackle these hard issues with young people.

Talking with children about the death of their pets is often the introduction to this topic for many children.

Cat Heaven and Dog Heaven, both by Cynthia Rylant, may be just the books to initiate these hard conversations. Dog Heaven begins:
When dogs go to heaven, they don't need wings because God knows that dogs love running best.He gives them fields. Fields and fields and fields.

 One of the most perfect books for explaining death to children is Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children by Brian Mellonie.
There is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive. And in between is the living.

Sweet, Sweet Memory by Jacqueline Woodson features a little girl who comes to appreciate the wonderful, and sometimes funny, memories she and her grandmother have of her deceased grandfather. She comes to understand a statement that he made often:
Everything and everyone goes on and on.

 And finally, on a lighter note, J. Patrick Lewis give us a humorous look at death, offering puns and silly verses, epitaphs on gravestones, and other humorous pieces concerning the dead, in Once Upon A Tomb: Gravely Humorous Verses and Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs.


Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Reflect on your views of death. How do you think and speak about death?

What language do you use ?

Think about a death that has affected you. It may be a family member or loved one or a friend or acquaintance. It may be a recent death or a death that took place long ago. It may have been an elderly person or a child.

Write about your perspectives on death and dying . This may be a narrative, essay or poem.

Or you may want to write about a particular death that has affected you.


  1. This is just like passing around books at CAWP, Robin! Love your recommendations, as always!

    Your post is very timely, as death has been hovering around our schools recently: my mom's school and my school both lost 2013 graduates within a week of each other. My mom wrote a really heartfelt post about her student's death, which has surprised her with the way it has been passed throughout her community of parents and students:

  2. Jennifer-- My goal is to try to capture that CAWP feel in each post. I am glad that this one worked ;-)

    I think it is always hard when young people die --and as teachers we are in the position of experiencing that special sadness more than the average person. Thanks for sharing your mom's post--what a heartfelt expression of loss, as well as celebration. I am now subscribing to her blog and look forward to her perspectives and well as continuing to read yours, as well..