To the Editor:
Re Andrew Solomon’s review of “When Breath Becomes Air” and four other books about death and dying (Feb. 14): Besides comfort and dignity, we need to openly discuss imbuing the impending death of a loved one with meaning. This is a considered trilateral conversation between a patient, their loved ones and clinicians. Except for palliative care teams, the health care professionals entrusted to shepherd most of us to our deaths require better training. Poetry and engagement with the humanities not only enhance a doctor’s empathy, but are requisite to all of us living meaningfully.
I have attended severely injured accident victims. Some die at the roadside before they get to the hospital. Breaking the news of a failed resuscitation can be heartbreaking for a child’s parents. Kafka’s “The meaning of life is that it stops” remains scant consolation when life is robbed unexpectedly or prematurely. I believe that dying at an old and infirm age is not something to be raged against or resisted at all cost. For all of us and every day, life ebbs away at a varied pace. Some race into the abyss of oblivion, and even the healthy are inching toward the precipice. Alastair Reid’s “Curiosity” offers a truthful rebuttal to Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night”: “That dying is what the living do, / that dying is what the loving do, / . . . that dying is what, to live, each has to do.”
The writer is an adjunct associate professor in the school of public health and social work at Queensland University of Technology.