HOW WE DIE by Sherwin B. Nuland [Book 13 of 2011]

The last time I was at Smith College, I had breakfast with my very first creative writing professor, and we got to talking about the death of her father and my mother. One thing led to another, and she told me that I ought to read HOW WE DIE by Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland. Now if you’ve been following this blog, you know that I usually don’t read non-fiction unless the writer is an editor mate or the book is helping me figure out how to do something. HOW WE DIE is literally a book about how we die, so this is the first time that I’d read something in a very long time — maybe since college — that didn’t teach me so much as learn me. Here are my thoughts:

What’s It About: How we die.

What Makes It Different: It’s interesting, b/c we see death on television and read about it in books all the time. But I think there’s probably very few of us that understand what happens in both medical and physical terms when we die.

What I Loved: Guys, real death is really, really, really oh-so fascinating. Much to my poor MIL’s horror, I could not stop talking about this book as I read it. As a writer, it made me much less blase about death. As a mortal, it made me think about how I would want my own death to go. And as a mother, it made me want to make a living will, so that my own death wouldn’t be an unnecessary burden to others. It’s hard to explain why I liked this book so much, but what I think it comes down to is understanding. By understanding death, I now don’t feel quite so scared of it.

What I Didn’t Like: Dr. Nuland talks a lot about a somewhat poisonous hospital culture and how 85% of us will probably die in one. But he doesn’t talk much about how to avoid that fate. I guess that’s another book.

Dying Lessons Learned

Plan your life out before the age of 65. CH and I often talk about what we’re going to do “after we retire.” But the truth is that it’s probably better to go on the around the world cruise sooner than later — like after your kids head off to college as opposed to after you retire. Unless differ from the majority of Americans and are super-fit, creakiness will set in after 65. It’s probably better to assume that you won’t be able to do as much after that. So save the trip to Las Vegas and the staycations for when you’re in your twilight years, and start planning that African safari for your 40s/50s. Basically live your life as if you won’t be able to physically do as much after you’re 65.

1 out of 10 people gets Alzheimers. That’s a huge statistic, and that’s why it’s so important to have a living will. What’s interesting about the Alzheimers chapter is that it was harrowing — but not so much for the Alzheimer’s patient himself. It’s certainly an undignified way to go, but most often the patient isn’t aware that he has the disease or even that he is suffering. It’s much, much worse for the family of the Alzheimer patient. If Alzheimer’s runs in your family, do your loved ones a favor and make a living will and also save accordingly, so that they can put you in a home if it comes to that. You think this sounds harsh, but if you had read the Alzheimer’s chapter, you, too, will start thinking about all the things you can do to prevent your loved ones the years of pain and suffering (for them, not necessarily for you) that accompanies this disease.

Sudden death is maybe the best way to go. I will say that having read all the ways one could die, it did give me some solace about my mother’s own sudden death by blood clot. At least she didn’t suffer beforehand. At least we didn’t suffer beforehand. In many ways if you have to die early, she had the best possible death. Really, I can’t think of a better early death than the one she had.

To Whom Would I Recommend This Book: This all sounds, really morbid, but I can’t stress enough that I totally get why my old professor recommended this book to me. It truly puts death in perspective, including your own. So this is one of the few books that I would recommend to any mortal living on this earth.

Click on the book cover to buy HOW WE DIE at Amazon!

featured image credit: an untrained eye