Book Review: A Beginner’s Guide to the End

Here we have the most comprehensive end of life book I’ve come across, and I’ve read a lot of them. Miller & Berger have given us a guide that touches on every aspect of ending our lives well, and with dignity, and peace, and with all loose ends wrapped up.

The book contains several descriptors rarely considered by other similar works, such things as how to tell children you’re dying, how we actually die, what our final 24 hours will be like, and how we can grieve well, if we’re the one left behind.

Addressing a conversation many of us avoid, death and its inevitability, A Beginner’s Guide to the End assumes that we’re ready to plan for it. There are chapters on looking ahead at finances and how to optimize that situation; chapters on coping, and how to tell people, and about love-sex-relationships, every one of which a pending death influences. There are ‘hospital hacks,’ and advice on writing your own obituary, and what happens the day after you die.

Mostly, for this reader, the book reveals the ‘richness’ that acknowledging our coming demise can bring into our lives prior to that day. It’s not a morbid reflection; it’s a loving clarification that too often we live in fear of, the one reality we share as human beings, the only creature that is aware of its own mortality.

Mostly, A Beginner’s Guide to the End affirms that There’s better way to live, and, ironically, it can be in preparing for our own death.

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.

EOL: The Chat We’re Not Having

No need to be alarmed, friends, and no need to pay keener attention if you happen to be a beneficiary to my laughingly meager estate. I’m as healthy and sound as any near 73-year-old might be, and probably sounder than most, if perhaps a bit grumpy and too quick to snarl at certain things, hopelessly confusing digital products and republicans, for example. I’m fine. Really. Relax.

But yes, there is a common theme to the books pictured above: We’re beginning an endeavor, first at the local level, later on, we hope, with a broader reach, to encourage people to tend to their end of life wishes, desires, specifics, and loose ends. It’s a long story.

Suffice to say that both Mariah and I, having worked in the vineyard of emergency medicine for several years, have seen far too much flagrant inattention to the details of our collective demise, too much ignorance (Ignore-Ance) of the way that we in our hyper-medicalized society always seem shocked and unprepared for life’s ultimate inevitability. Did you know that you’re going to die? Astonishing, isn’t it? I know, I was amazed to hear it myself. Who knew?

About the book picture: One thing you’ll see posted here on a regular basis is book reviews, not just about EOL issues, but about the literary works I’ve been drawn to recently, and a few not so recently. It is indeed one of retired life’s deepest pleasures to have (almost) sufficient time to read what one wishes, without the aggravating interruptions of modern life, kid concerns, career distractions, loud noises, and the incessant social obligations that once defined our younger years. I’ve become resigned, even thrilled by the lack of interest of late in discussions of my bladder issues, or my real feelings about the new hearing aids, or remembrances of favorite TV shows of yore, Lassie, and Laugh-In, and the ever popular, madcap antics of Andy & Barney & Aint Bea & Opie. I’ve discovered that the fastest way to clear the room may be asking who shot JR? Life is good at 73.


The picture above is Mariah and me, and mom Rosie. We 3 Masketeers live together in relative harmony here in the middle of the country, in the middle of an Iowa winter, in the middle of the apparently waning pandemic. We navigate the standard discomforts of shuffling around each other, making the adjustments called for in any family setting. All that, plus Rosie’s advanced age, the winter of her life, have given us added motivation to focus on EOL stuff.

So here’s your homework, dear readers. In my diminished sentience & inattention to such things, I no longer know to whom I’m writing. If you’d be so kind, take a moment to advise me #1, if you did indeed receive this post, and #2, if you’d like to continue receiving them.

And I suppose number three might be this: If you’d like more info on EOL, end of life issues, and/or you have an interesting and valuable story pertaining to that topic, we’d love to hear about it. Speaking of EOL stories, in my next post, and with deference to HIPAA guidelines, I’ll mention a fellow named Daniel, one of my helicopter patient/passengers some foggy years hence. Daniel’s story will chill your arms, I guarantee it. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading. Please let me hear from you. Many thanks.