Tag Archives: death

A time to be born, and a time to die-what books teach us about dying

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,

Ecclesiastes 3, NIV

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Birth and death are the only medical events that all humans share. We can anticipate and celebrate the births of other people but not our own.

However we all can anticipate our own death although most of the time we don’t want to.  Unless we deal with a chronic life threatening disease or  are  diagnosed with a terminal illness, or thrust into a life-threatening situation such as combat or a natural disaster,  most of us don’t consider  about how or when we will die. But in truth we all will die.

I have reviewed several books about death here . Not because I  wanted to write about death but because several good books deal with death sensitively and thoughtfully.

Books about death are sometimes written by a person who is facing death. Relatives write after a loved one dies- a child ,a spouse ,a parent. The motivation for writing these books varies as does the motivation for reading them.

I reviewed these books  because by understanding how other people and their families have faced death it may relieve our dread, anxiety, or fear  about dying and death. Often it is not death itself that we  fear but the dying process -the pain , disability, dependence, isolation, unfulfilled dreams.

In an essay  for JAMA, Dr. Zachary Sager, a geriatric and palliative care physician in Boston Massachusetts, described his response to  working with dying patients-

“I witnessed how people could be simultaneously resilient and fragile. I was moved by the connectedness between individuals.

I accept that death offers not only the expected reflection on life and mourning but an opportunity for a unique form of growth and healing. “

The books I reviewed share  common themes, and events yet are each unique as are the people in them who demonstrate both resilience and fragility.

I am posting excerpts from my reviews with a link to the entire piece. I welcome and encourage your comments about these books as well as any about how you  have navigated death in your family.

A 90 year old woman says “yes” to life

Driving Miss Norma tells the story of Norma Bauerschmidt, a WWII WAVE veteran, wife, and mother. She was still in good health at 90 years of age, until she was diagnosed with cancer.

Her doctor recommended surgery to be followed by chemotherapy, and warned her the treatment and recovery would be long and difficult. She told him no, she would rather “hit the road” with her son and daughter-in-law and enjoy her life, seeing and doing things she had not had a chance to do before. And her doctor agreed, saying that is just what he would do.

Driving Miss Norma - a book cover

Tim, her son, and Ramie, his wife, had already been living a nomadic life, travelling the country with their standard poodle Ringo in an Airstream travel  trailer they parked in campgrounds and  Walmart parking lots. They enjoyed travelling, seeing new places, meeting new people. They wondered how adding a 90 year old woman to their wandering lifestyle would work.

Driving Miss Norma- a book review

A young mother who chose life

A few months after their baby Indiana’s birth, Joey  faced the recurrence of cervical cancer diagnosed and treated years before. Despite more surgery, radiation and chemo the cancer persisted until further treatments were futile and and likely to cause more suffering. Joey decided to leave their Nashville farm,her horses, chickens and gardens, to move home to Indiana to spend her remaining time with her extended family.

To Joey, With Love

Faced with the persistence of the cancer

“Joey decided to come home-not to die, but to live.”

To Joey, With Love- a movie review

A physician who faces his own mortality

Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a 36-year-old resident physician who had, as he wrote, “reached the mountaintop” of anticipating a promising career as a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. He had a loving wife, a supportive family and professors who respected his knowledge and skill. He seemed destined to be sought after, well paid, productive, successful, and  famous.

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR- a book

(note: a neurosurgeon treats  brain, spinal cord and nerve  diseases such as brain tumors that can be cured or improved with surgery,)

Unfortunately, “the culmination of decades of striving evaporated” when he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer for which the prognosis was bleak, even with treatment. He was admitted to the very hospital where he trained as a neurosurgery resident, now  to learn what it is like to be a patient with a potentially terminal illness.

When Breath Becomes Air- reflections from Dr. Lucy Kalanithi

Thank you for joining me to remember and honor Norma, Joey, and Paul. I appreciate their families’ generosity in sharing their stories and the HEART of health.

Dr. Aletha stethoscope with a heart

Advertisements

“Tis the season, again

This is one of my favorite posts, probably because I had fun writing it. There’s no serious medical information in it, but I hope you will find inspiration to stop and think about the “reason for the season”.

Don’t  we celebrate more special events and holidays the last six weeks of the year than the rest of the year combined? It feels that way to me.  We have these three major holidays-

Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day

Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve have become mini holidays too.

And when Christmas and New Year’s Day fall on the weekend, Friday or Monday will be a holiday for many people.

First we had Black Friday. Then they added Cyber Monday. Now we also have Giving Tuesday, which I think is the only one that really counts.

beautiful large Christmas tree
Christmas at the Chicago Museum of  Science and Industry

Some people observe the special celebrations of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

In the United States, we observe December 7 as Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, the day in 1941 the United States entered World War II.  That event changed our country forever, and created my generation, the post-war  Baby Boomers.

The USS Arizona Memorial
Pearl Harbor Memorial to the USS Arizona

On December 17 , 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made their  famous flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, ushering in the age of air travel, another historical turning point.

aircraft airplane antique classic
Photo by Inge Wallumrød on Pexels.com

The shortest day of the year occurs on December 21, the winter solstice and first day of winter in the northern hemisphere.

light snow on trees and ground

And  there are other special holidays and events observed too.

Besides holidays, other matters demand our time and attention during this season also.

College students face the end of a semester by studying for finals and finishing term papers and projects.

Renewal notices for subscriptions, licenses, and memberships show up in our mailboxes or inboxes.

Charities offer us one final opportunity to make  tax-deductible donations.

Patients call their doctor’s, dentist’s or optometrist’s office for that last chance to use medical insurance before the new (and probably higher) deductible kicks in or use medical spending accounts.

red gift boxes
Christmas birthdays can be messy too.

And in the middle of all this, I celebrate my birthday.

Having a  birthday close to Christmas makes both occasions rather messy for you and your family. As my friend ,whose birthday is on New Year’s Day, wrote, “You feel like you get cheated on your Christmas/birthday gifts.”  But  there are perks.

Your neighbors remind you your birthday is coming by hanging lights on their houses and turning them on every evening. (My husband claims that’s not the real reason. He doesn’t believe in Santa Claus either.)

You can go to a holiday party and pretend it’s for you.

You can listen to Christmas music on your birthday without seeming weird.

Your husband may hire a limousine to drive you around town looking at holiday lights displays. (No joke.)

boy and woman with birthday cakes
Celebrating a long ago birthday with my son. I don’t know why I had two birthday cakes.

Thank goodness, so far, no one else in my immediate family has chosen to be born or married this month. (Although I was delighted to learn  recently that two  distant cousins also have December birthdays.)

But the best part of any birthday, no matter when you observe it, is reflecting on your life, both the successes and failures, the joys and sorrows, and remembering and reflecting on the people and events that brought you to where you are now.

Birth and death comprise this journey  we call Life. Long ago I recognized that we physicians do not ultimately “save lives” or “prevent death”, but we can sometimes impact the time and circumstances.

A Bible book,  Ecclesiastes chapter 3 addresses the extremes of life in this passage which is often read at funerals or memorials-

For everything there is a season, and a time for

every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

This year I have  celebrated with friends who welcomed new babies into their families. I watched a friend face a disabling illness and death with the same faith, courage, enthusiasm, dignity and humor that he had lived life. I have mourned with his family and others who have lost loved ones this year.

Some people dread birthdays, but I believe  they are  a blessing; I am grateful for another year of life and hope to use whatever time I have left productively.  I agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes

“To be seventy years young is sometimes far more cheerful and hopeful than to be forty years old.”

Buzz Aldrin, one of the Apollo 11 astronauts and second human to step on the moon’s surface , trekked to the South Pole-at 86 years old.

A woman celebrating  her 103rd birthday made the news.  As always, she spent the day at a senior citizen center- as a volunteer!

In January, our country observes the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I doubt my birthday will ever be named a holiday, but I hope something I do in life will leave this world a little better.

A birthday creates a new beginning  and so does a new year.  Perhaps we can all use the New Year’s Day holiday  to remember, reflect, renew and recharge our hearts and minds for another season  of life.

Yes, ’tis the season-Merry Christmas, Happy New Year-

and happy birthday, whenever yours may be.

Dr. Aletha

dessert with a lit candle in the middle
I hope your favorite restaurant gives you a complimentary dessert on your birthday.