Here in the United States, we have a death problem. By this I do not mean a sudden uptick of American fatalities — rather, the combination of scientific breakthroughs and de-emphasis of religion has translated into an odd denial of the existence of death.
Doctors are trained to preserve life rather than well-being, and many of us act as if death is a problem we can circumvent with a vegan diet and enough hours at the gym. Thankfully, there also exists a movement toward accepting death’s place in our life cycle; here are some wonderful books to help us do so.
Before he died at age 37, Kalinthi was an up-and-coming neurosurgeon who also enjoyed wresting with literary and philosophical precepts. Upon his diagnosis with the lung cancer that would take his life in less than two years, he began writing this open-hearted, clear-eyed memoir about how to live when you know you’re going to die. It remains a stunning legacy.
Sherwin B. Nuland
A surgeon who struggled with serious illness in his youth, the late Dr. Nuland harbored no illusions regarding “good deaths.” To him, the end of life was messy, difficult, and dehumanizing, and he resented any effort to disabuse us of this notion. Here, he carefully details the biological and chemical processes of what is inevitably to come for each of us. As dour as it sounds, the clarity of this tome is not just bracing but oddly comforting.
Like poet William Carlos Williams or The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat author Oliver Sacks, Gawande is that rare soul who is as talented a writer as he is a doctor. In this call for a reevaluation of end-of-life care, he meditates on how to navigate age-related frailty and mortal illness so that not just the living, but the dying, can be comfortable.
The late political journalist and author Hitchens was a controversial figure throughout his life, and he proved no less controversial upon receiving a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer. True to form, he fully documented his waning health, fears, and unflagging atheism with a dogged, cheerful boldness.
At age 44, French Vogue editor Bauby seemingly had it all. Then he suffered a massive stroke that left him almost entirely paralyzed. In his last few months on Earth, he used his left eyelid to convey this stunning memoir of his revelations upon being caught in between life and death.
Who says death and dying can’t be funny? Leave it to Roz Chast, best known as the beloved New Yorker cartoonist, to craft a graphic memoir that finds the gallows humor (and haunting melancholy) in her parents’ last days.
The one novel on this list, it perfectly encapsulates the pain of losing a close friend to cancer while you’re both still in middle age — the conversations, the solidarity, and the terrible sense of moving into two separate worlds.
A remembrance of the author’s final days spent with memoirist Carolynn Knapp, who died in 2003 at age 42, this offers haunting insight into communing and dying with grace.
Ten years after her 2004 death, this new edition of Dr. Kübler-Ross’s definitive work was released, and it’s chock-ablock with her original insights about the psychological processes of dying as well as new resources for the ailing and their loved ones.
The strength of this memoir written in the year after Didion’s husband’s sudden death lies in its deconstruction of dissociation. Through the repetition of words and a documentation of her obsessive behaviors, she fumbles into accepting her loss by tasting phrases with the numb wonderment of a weeping child tasting her own tears. An extraordinary, elegant achievement.