Contribution by Penny
Sally Tisdale is a palliative care nurse and a Zen Buddhist practitioner, and this book is a 2018 addition to the growing number of recent books on death and dying. There are others I have loved, particularly Atul Gawende’s Being Mortal, Late Fragments by Kate Gross and Dear Life by Rachel Clarke, but I think Sally’s book has the best title of all!
I have had an interest in the topics since I went to India early in my life and learnt that meditation on death was an important part of Hindu spiritual practice. This was reinforced by later work as a nurse and training in palliative care, however it wasn’t until I was diagnosed with cancer 11 years ago that I was surprised by the fact that I was definitely going to die one day. It can be quite astonishing and terrible to contemplate one’s own extinction…. but one can forget and just get on with living. Blood tests and scans are little reminders though…….as someone once said, a disease like cancer is a gift that keeps on giving.
Sally’s book is about preparing for one’s own death and the deaths of people close to you. ‘Our lives as we live them day by day create the person we will be at the moment of death’. It contains practical advice as well as reflections:
How do you get ready to die? The same way you prepare for a trip to a place you have never been. Read a travel guide……study the language. Look at maps……. find someone to water the plants when you’re gone.
But Sally reminds us that it may be a fantasy to think that we can plan for a ’good death’. Deaths like births are often messy in spite of all our preparations. For some people a ‘good death’ may be fighting to stay alive until the very end. This book is full of deep insight not only into preparing for our own deaths but also into how we can support those we love at the end of their lives……. including understanding of symptoms such as fatigue, pain, breathlessness etc. And then there is grief, for ourselves and others. It may not matter how much we meditate on the transience of life. As Kobayashi Issa expresses in the poem he wrote after two of his children died in a short time:
The world of dew
Is a world of dew,
And yet, and yet.