Death should not be unspeakable
Will it be in a plane crash? A shark attack? Will someone break into your house with a knife, or will you be caught in the crossfire in a botched robbery? You might overdose. Drop dead from a massive heart attack. Maybe you’ll take your own life, or some misguided fool will blow up his underwear on the bus. The house will catch on fire or a drunk will veer into your lane or you’ll drown.
Or will you one day notice that something isn’t quite right? Will there be tests and waiting and halting conversations in hushed rooms? Will you be sick? Will you sign documents and move into some sort of facility? Will you suffer? Will you be alone?
Al Qaida, trench coats and tiger sharks notwithstanding, you will probably not go out in a blaze of glory, tragedy or anything else. Nine out of ten of us will depart this life after an illness. It is very, very likely that you will one day get some kind of sick that does not get better, and that hours or weeks or years later, you will die in a quiet room.
And so will the people you love.
As Lani Leary writes in No One Has To Die Alone, most of us will be badly unprepared for death when it arises in our lives–whether for ourselves or for our loved ones–and often with painful consequences. Far too often, those facing the death of someone close to them find themselves confronted by a physical, emotional and spiritual challenge for which nothing in their experience has prepared them. Having lived in a society that segregates death from the rest of live, Leary writes, we don’t know what questions to ask, what steps to take, or how we can best be of service.
Leary, a Hawaii native now living in Kaneohe, writes from extraordinary experience. The book opens with a recounting of her mother’s death at a relatively early age, and of Leary’s memories of the silence and isolation that befell the remaining members of her family. She recalls the sense of being lost that followed–a feeling familiar to all who have lost a parent but, as Leary reveals in wrenching prose, one that is almost all-consuming for a child. Leary went on to a career as a psychotherapist for the dying and the bereaved, and her professional engagement with more than 500 deaths informed the insights of this book.
No One Has to Die Alone is ultimately a reference book with a soul. Written not as a theoretical text but rather as a roadmap for what can be one of life’s most treacherous roads, Leary’s book offers both deep wisdom and simple practical tips for those facing the death of a loved one. At the core of Leary’s message is that listening and love are the keys; that if we listen with love–and without judgment–to what the dying need, we can help bring peace and fulfillment and grace to their final journeys.
The standout quality of Leary’s book is its comprehensive approach, which is surprising for such a slim volume. No One Has to Die Alone is beautifully balances the need to care for the dying with the need to care for ourselves while we are doing so. This is particularly important, as Leary notes, when a loved one is faced with a relatively long illness, as mourning in such cases begins long before the person’s death. Also of great value to those facing death for the first time are Leary’s checklists, a set of key concepts that appear at the end of each chapter: “How to Say Goodbye” and “How to Respond to Your Loved One’s Expressions of Pain” — these things may seem glib, even fatuous, out of context, but in the moment of crisis their value is immense.
No One Has to Die Alone is not for everyone, at least not as a casual read. Leary delves into a personal near-death experience and reports on the afterlife with an odd certainty. Her own experience with the dying is vast, and perhaps as a result there is a kind of death-zen here to which some readers probably will not relate.
These are small concerns measured against the yawning chasm that opens in our lives when a loved one is facing the end. Neither Leary’s book nor anything else can come close to filling that void, but No One Has to Die Alone offers wisdom, compassion and humanity.
Lani Leary, PhD