Book Review: On Living

Here we have a book by a counselor to the dying, someone on the front lines of the end of life battle. Egan’s book is full of anecdotal essays that range from the profound with a fellow named ‘Reggie’, who offers Egan a connection based on Saltines and strawberry jam, to the near-comical with ‘Gloria’, (though her story will give anyone’s heart a painful tug), to the revelation we gain from ‘Cynthia’ that we must accept our bodies as they are. Gloria demystifies the dying process, explaining that it serves to remove any filter we may have, allowing us to speak freely. This is a valuable aspect of dying, however difficult it may be to listen to certain stories. For example: Gloria explains this by referring to a delicate bodily function she can no longer do, since she’s convinced herself that she lacks the aperture associated with it! We learn a lot from Egan’s small, but expansive book: that people don’t typically talk about a god, but about their families; that counseling the demented is both the hardest & the easiest assignment; that we must be willing to follow up people’s stories, but that doing so may alter our own lives; that regardless of how strange and exotic others’ end of life beliefs may be, we must accept them as they’re delivered, and meet people where they are. One of the more important takeaways from On Living is that counselors to the dying, and that may be any one of us in time, must absolutely meet people where they are. The author refers to a phenomenon called Pareidolia, a human tendency—scientifically documented—that causes us to see human faces and forms in inanimate objects. It explains why some people see angels, Egan explains. She goes on: Who’s to say they’re not real? The most important message in On Living is this: Stories are what have defined the lives of the dying, and what have assigned value to those lives. In dismissing anyone’s story, we devalue their life, claiming that whatever they have done with it didn’t matter. There are no ‘nonsense’ stories; everyone’s story is central to who they are, and instead of an imposition, listening and hearing those end of life stories is a privilege. Egan has learned to listen very well.