Tag Archives: death

Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved): Send me suggestions about death and dying

I continue to obsess about death. The unanticipated consequence of happiness coupled with atheism means I’m a moth to the flame of books contemplating how it all just… ends. I suppose the current preoccupation has encouraged me to be more mindful, more present, more enthusiastically here (!) for (!) each (!) moment (!). But I’m pretty sure the return to work and increasing size in diapers would do the same with less morbidity. All this to say, I’ve read another book about dying, and in keeping with everything else I’ve read in this (hitherto unknown to me) genre, it was great.

Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved is part elegy, part history, part reflection. Bowler, a religious historian of the prosperity gospel (luck is a sign of God’s love, bad luck is a sign of God’s disapproval – or not luck, actually, but good fortune – think mansions, diamonds and televangelists), is diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Given months to live, she chronicles here her confrontation with her mortality (and reflects, too, on the omnipresent metaphors of battle (e.g. confrontation) accorded to encounters with death and cancer, specifically).

I found the sections of personal reflection, unsurprisingly perhaps, the most affecting. Bowler has a young son, and much of her grief is tied to the recognition that she will not live to see him grow and age. The moments of her reflection on the compression of time, of her experience of the present that will become her son’s past, are moving and poetically written.

Sections describing the intersection of the prosperity gospel and her experience carried, for me, less impact. It may be that my atheist affiliation means that I am not overly concerned by the calculus that goes into discovering how an experience is, or is not, evidence of God, or of God’s benevolence or malevolence or  or or. That said it’s not a preachy book – at all – in fact Bowler’s particular beliefs about or in relation to God skate under the surface. The descriptions and considerations of God here read as an academic reporting with the particular poignancy of a personal experience that lends absolute credence to the thesis of the lecture. So I found the intersection of the religious present/history to be illuminating of her experience, but not as readily identifiable and gripping.

Like Grief Works there is a handy appendix of things *not* to say to those experiencing grief or terminal illness (for instance, ‘everything happens for a reason’) along with a selection of things you *can* do (like bringing presents or offering hugs or being silent).

I don’t think I’ve read enough in this genre (it is a genre then, isn’t it? Books about death and dying?) to know how this one stacks up against others. I just know that for me, I read it quickly, I stopped frequently to stare in the middle distance and have a little waaaa, and I thought I’d like to read a little more. So I turn to you: what are the books about death and dying you’ve found most affecting? most connecting? most useful?

 

p.s. Thanks to my Guelph book club friends for suggesting this one.

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Grief Works: Why Thinking About Death Beats Cat Videos

I can’t remember the last time I read book length non-fiction. I’m going to guess at least a year. Maybe two, if you don’t count books for work. Which is to say it has to be a compelling proposition for me to entertain non-fiction (like I considered reading Fire and Fury but then thought – who cares, there are podcasts). But when I heard that the author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Survival, Julia Samuel, was coming to my city, I looked into the book. And that was enough for me to pick it up.

The gist: Samuel is a grief counselor and the book presents 15 case studies from her years of practice as a way of inviting the reader to consider how folks experience grief and keep living after significant loss. The book is broken into sections (death of a sibling, death of a partner, death of a parent, death of a child, facing your own death) and each section has three case studies and then some reflections on the chapter. The book concludes with some general notes about death and dying in Canada (presumably only for the Canadian edition), supporting others in grief, supporting yourself in grief.

I haven’t experienced grief up close. Yet. Samuels is great, however, at reminding the reader that it is only a matter of time – and chance – before we encounter death and grief, and that hiding from this certainty does nothing to protect us from the inevitability (sort of like my relationship with global warming, actually). And she reminds the reader without being scary or macabre.

In fact, I’d say the overarching mood of the book is ‘gentle.’ Readers are allowed space to digest as each case study is relatively short, and within them are moments of levity and reflection. (One complaint I have is that Samuels dwells a bit too much for my taste on her therapeutic process (i.e. how she needs to go slow in asking some questions because trust needs to be established first), but then I wasn’t reading it with interest in how grief counselling works, but I can see how other readers might have this interest).

I was talking to my dear friend S. about the book (as well as my mum and my Auntie P.) and sharing with them that what I found most valuable about the book (at this moment in my life anyway) was in supporting others in their experience with grief. But it was also a key read for me at the moment because I am – inexplicably? – preoccupied with knowing that those I love will die. And dwelling in this morbidity has been scary and disquieting and all the other feelings you’d expect to have. And while fiction does it’s best to help me prepare for death (there are no shortage of novels exploring all the many different ways death finds us), I suppose I wanted something practical. And this is a desire Grief Works frustrates. Samuels acknowledges the desire for a practical guide, and notes that these kinds of books do exist, but she resists giving a check-list because of her emphasis on how individualized and contextual grief is experienced. Sure she offers a few ‘pillars’ (meditation, running and visualizations seem to be her fan favourites), but these are couched in the insistence that each individual will have to find their own path.

So maybe what I’m most appreciative of is the way the book has opened conversations for me. I can say I’m reading, or just read this book, and it made me think about these things. Instead of being like “I’m thinking a lot about death these days,” which is odd because it is sunny, and springtime, and there are baby cats (aka: kittens) all over Facebook, I can use the book to begin conversations that let me know that other people are thinking about death, too. (And yes, I know I should check out a death cafe).

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Filed under Fiction, Non-fiction, Prize Winner

February: Tiny Catastrophes (and a plug for Eden Mills Writers Festival)

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“Is this what a life is? Someone, in the middle of cleaning the bathroom, remembers you tasting the ocean on your fingers long after you’re gone. Someone draws that out of the fog, draws out that memory, detached from circumstance, not locatable on a timeline” (115-116).

I can’t remember who told me this, but someone told me once that their hope when they die is not that their friends and family will remember them on birthdays or holidays, but that those they love might pick ‘ordinary’ days each year to remember and celebrate the dead. This idea resonated with me – with my own fears about creating meaning and being remembered. You might be able to tell that I’m in the position of not yet experiencing the death of someone so close to me (though loss is another matter – let’s come back to that). And then I read Lisa Moore’s incredible February. The book showed me that grief and memory doesn’t need to be requested or planned. No date scheduled. Moore’s book takes readers inside a grief that is perpetual, with shape and contour and bite.  It follows Helen and her family in the years before, during and after the Newfoundland Ocean Ranger oil rig disaster, during which Helen’s husband, Cal, dies.

At first I found the novel slow. I kept waiting for big chunky plot elements. Not realizing that in the incremental layering of small family moments that Moore was working literary magic: heaping these tiny details of family life and love to the point that this reader ached with the catastrophe of the loss. It wasn’t until three quarters in when I realized the sub-plot of John was just that –  a sub-plot – that I recognized the point of the book. I guess that’s my failing as a reader, or my suggestion to you that if you start out and find yourself wondering ‘what’s this all about’ that you keep reading. You keep reading to discover that it’s all about how the small is the epic.

Aside: It’s a little over a week until the Eden Mills Writers Festival.  If you live in the Greater Toronto Area you might consider visiting. Many of my favourite authors will be there reading (think Lawrence Hill, Sean Michaels, Camilla Gibb, Anne Marie MacDonald, John Valliant, Elizabeth Hay). And the ever fabulous Guelph Poetry Slam Team will be there performing. Better still: *I’ll* be there. And if you want to meetup, you should let me know: literaryvice@gmail.com

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

My Struggle: Karl Ove Knausgaard and the Book You Should Be Reading

tumblr_inline_n8cflnHeOh1qzy8r9Don’t make the mistake I did and be caught off guard by this literary sensation. Go read the first installment (and then immediately all the others because you won’t be able to resist) of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s masterful, genius autobiographical series My Struggle. You probably already did. You’re probably one of the bazillions of people who have read the book and have read the countless articles extolling its virtues, its genius. And if you are, I say to you: Why didn’t you tell me earlier? Why did you let me wander around without this book? (to be fair, the book was endorsed on the Slate Political Gabfest ages ago, and was a book recommended by the fabulous L. – thanks!)

Okay, okay, so why so great? Why so necessary? Continue reading

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Filed under Erin's Favourite Books, Prize Winner, Reader Request