What You Don’t Yet Know about Death — Susan K. Perry








well-written books can be an almost pleasurable way to accustomize yourself to the idea of mortality. A form of desensitization therapy, if you will. In my own Kylie’s Heel, I forced the protagonist to endure the harshest possible emotional journey, and I hoped, in so doing, to help me grieve with more grace someday (if any such thing is possible).

Literary explorations of dying and death are often based on a deeply felt experience on the part of the author. Denying it will happen to you, to your parents, to your mate will never make the actual events less painful. Many of us really do want to know what to expect, as horrific as the emotions unleashed by such thoughts.

Here are four recent books on the subject of death. Two are nonfiction and offer practical advice. I’ve put them first. The two novels are by superb writers who will make you feel you’re living through what they describe with such dreadful insight and literary flair.


Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Deathby Katy Butler, is nonfiction, mixing the very personal with the profoundly practical. A high percentage of people who have signed all the proper paperwork that should allow them a dignified death do not get what they (or their families) wanted. Here Butler describes what happened to her parents after her father had a stroke. The stroke began a cascade of illnesses that health professionals seem only to have worsened with their focus on prolonging life at any cost.

The physical therapy following Butler’s father’s stroke caused two hernias. As his heart was wearing out and beating slowly and somewhat erratically, his family were urged to have a pacemaker implanted before surgery. It wasn’t until five years later they discovered the pacemaker could have been avoided (options included a temporary pacemaker or local anesthesia). And that pacemaker was keeping his heart beating regularly for years during which his abilities kept failing and his wife was struggling to cope.

Chapters of medical history are interspersed with details about what the author endured, as the only one among her siblings who chose to be involved, including frequent cross-country plane trips, much emotional ambivalence, and a huge cost in life and career interruption.

I didn’t become very fond of any of the characters involved, though Butler is honest about everyone’s flaws. A Zen Buddhist and not a deist, Butler continues to experience an intense craving for the sacred and the holy, cravings left unsatisfied except by a few slight makeshift rituals. But I learned a lot. Highly recommended reading, especially for boomers caught in the middle.

When Someone Dies: The Practical Guide to the Logistics of Death, by lawyer Scott Taylor Smith, with writer Michael Castleman, is the sort of aid you need when you’re the one responsible for sorting out the practical details surrounding someone’s death. Included is a 50-page appendix of legal forms. If there’s an estate of any complexity involved, this book won’t take the place of legal advice, but the more you are informed beforehand, the more targeted your questions will be, minimizing legal fees. Decisions are often more wisely made before being struck with grief. Those of us who are aging ourselves (and who isn’t?), might do well to consider planning ahead.

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes is composed of three separate barely-related sections. The third of these, worth the price alone, is an extended and wrenching essay called “Loss of Depth.” It details in focused and unsentimental language how Barnes dealt with the death of his wife, which occurred only 37 days from her diagnosis.

Here are three brief excerpts that demonstrate how honestly and beautifully Barnes writes about grief:

I did already know that only the old words would do: death, grief, sorrow, sadness, heartbreak. Nothing modernly evasive or medicalising. Grief is a human, not a medical, condition, and while there are pills to help us forget it–and everything else–there are no pills to cure it.

When we killed–or exiled–God, we also killed ourselves. Did we notice that sufficiently at the time? No God, no afterlife, no us. We were right to kill Him, of course, this long-standing imaginary friend of ours. And we weren’t going to get an afterlife anyway.

You feel sharply the loss of shared vocabulary, of tropes, teases, short cuts, injokes, sillinesses, faux rebukes, amatory footnotes–all those obscure references rich in memory but valueless if explained to an outsider.

The Quarry is by Iain Banks, who wrote many literary novels, including The Wasp Factory and The Crow Road, in addition to a long list of science fiction titles. The Quarry deserves more than the reductionist description of being about “an autistic youth and his dying father.” Iain didn’t know it would be his last book, as his own terminal cancer diagnosis came after he’d nearly finished it.

Published right after he died, it takes place during one long weekend, includes several characters besides the boy and his dad, including one who might be the boy’s missing mother. It’s a sad, important novel about suffering, the horror of cancer, and looking down into the abyss with nothing but your words left to sustain you. Make no mistake: it’s not a book espousing positive thinking. I imagine that Banks imagined it well.

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