As the Tom Delaney song goes, “everybody wants to go to heaven…. but nobody wants to die.” Laura Pritchett is no exception. In fact, a series of weird childhood experiences with dead bodies and a scary “medical extravaganza” in which she felt close to dying sparked a life-long quest to learn more about death and dying. This ongoing journey led her to create Making Friends With Death, a guide for herself and for others, in preparation for dying and as an inspiration for living.
Making Friends With Death is a “field guide for your impending last breath (to be read, ideally, before It’s imminent)” by Laura Pritchett (© 2017, VIVA Editions). There are four parts to this book, starting with a How-To Guide on Death (a “crash course in the art of dying”). In a lighthearted style meant to put the reader at ease, Pritchett argues against death, but concedes that we must all accept our eventual mortality. Injecting humor with personal stories, she acknowledges that in general people avoid making preparations for their own death thus risking more personal and family distress when they die later.
Just as many people plan for childbirth (e.g., Lamaze classes), she challenges readers to reflect on their lives, to think critically about what a good death would look like and to “practice” dying. Her guidance is informative, provocative, humorous at times, and specific: for example, prepare a “death mantra”: have your last words and thoughts prepared and on the tip of your tongue. Practice it sufficiently so you are in control and may summon it when you need it, whether the death experience is expected or not.
I was concerned at first when I read her personal stories about a human skull in her home, dug up from a local grave (it was at risk for washing away in a rising river) and of her father’s brain on the kitchen counter (awaiting post mortem analysis). Some might consider this to be insensitive and disrespectful, perhaps a turn off to some readers. I do understand, however, how a writer can be provocative to get readers to rethink difficult subjects, like death.
But the guidebook for dying, Making Friends with Death also includes a “crash course in the art of living,” with entreaties to the reader to reframe death from “failure” to “advisor.” In this way, she creates a “takeaway list” of things to do, things NOT to do and things to think about, acknowledging that death is an advisor when we use death to help us “focus on life.” Pritchett’s use of personal stories as a way to introduce reflective topics makes what might be an otherwise dry set of exercises for the reader into an enjoyable reading experience. My wife heard a series of “belly laughing” releases of tension from me while I was reading (and writing in) this book.
Yes: writing in this book. At the end of each chapter, Pritchett includes things to think about, things to do, and things to write. The guide includes reflective exercises in preparation for your own death, for the death of someone else, and different ways to think about death whether it is “sudden or meandering.” Pritchett provides “Homework,” which focuses on the “guidebook” aspect of the project. The exercises that ask readers to document goals, values, hopes, messages for others and much more makes this even more practical. I am a geriatrician, with special training on advance care planning, so as Pritchett suggests, I’ve been thinking about writing my own “ethical will.” In that document, I would recall my father (may he rest in peace) saying “more important than what you know and think, is what you do.” I guess, I need to follow that advice and put all my knowledge and thoughts down in writing. This book has just the right spark and organization to help me along that journey, and probably you as well.
Pritchett’s stories and exercises were very enjoyable to read, often funny, always open and sincere, and written to put the reader at ease. Even without the guided exercises, one might enjoy simply reading her stories. But don’t just read this book! Use the guide, take control of the one thing we can all count on (dying) and plan your death and your life accordingly. Write your own story and you will have made a new friend.
Dr. Sanders Burstein is a retired geriatrician and a consultant in promoting Advance Care Planning with Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Honoring Care Decisions program and with Respecting Choices® out of La Crosse, WI.