by Steve Gordon and Irene Kacandes
Prometheus Books, 2015
Review by Hennie Weiss on May 3rd 2016
Let's Talk About Death: Asking the Questions that Profoundly Change the Way We Live and Die by Steve Gordon and Irene Kacandes is a series of email exchanges between the authors spanning several years. Gordon, a former newspaper writer and editor, but now the founder of The Hand to Hear project, where he gives massages to people with advances cancer, first met Professor Kacandes under tragic circumstances, a year after Kacandes dear friends, the Zantops, had been brutally murdered in their home. Kacandes and a friend of hers reached out to Gordon in an attempt to celebrate the Zantops in a way that did not focus on the brutal murders but commemorated their lives. Through many other encounters, Kacandes and Gordon became friends and started writing each other about death, their thoughts about the subject, and as they discussed their lives, and the topic of dying, their friendship started to grow.
Both authors have experiences death in different ways, and as they come from different backgrounds, their email exchanges concerning death is centered around asking each other questions about such experiences, but also discussing stories and personal experiences about death and dying, as well as how a person approaches death from the standpoint of witnessing a friend, or family member nearing the end of his/her life. The book is divided into seven chapters that discuss various aspects of death and dying, where the authors recant stories, share materials helpful to them (such as books), and where the authors constantly ask each other questions and provide support and healing. The authors start by discussing their own experiences with death, even though this is certainly a recurring theme throughout the book, then move to discussing whether or not dying is unfair and an injustice, while at the same time coming to the conclusion that death is and has to be part of life, even though we can all certainly feel injustice and unfairness in how people die.
Other important topics include being able to handle pain at the end of life, and how to make your loved one feel comfortable, which includes the use of medication. Caregiving is another important topic that is being discussed. No one wants to be a burden for someone else, but caregiving might be important for the person who is caring for someone else, and it could be a way to honoring that person, even though caring for someone who is ill can also be very difficult. The authors also discuss topics such as how to respond to a sick family member/friend who is rude or ungrateful, and how to appreciate and honor the decisions of the primary caregiver, and the person that is dying. The authors discuss how mourning can be different when a person dies sudden, or from suicide, and how even as we believe that we are preparing for death, either that of a loved one, or our own, issues and discussions concerning death can be very difficult. Another topic not often discussed is being with a person, with their body, after that person has died. The authors believe that this can be an important and profound experience. One of the most touching parts of the book discusses the notion of grief, and how grief can be connected to the way that a person dies. The authors bring up two very important concepts, anticipatory grief -- waiting for or anticipating the death of a loved one, or ones own death, as well as grieving the way that a person used to be (when someone you know has dementia for example), and vicarious anticipatory grief -- the pain someone might experience who is dying, due to the anticipation of how friends and family members are suffering while watching that person die.
Let's Talk About Death is both a highly personal, yet relatable book for anyone experiencing grief, has a friend/family member nearing death, or who has experienced the death of someone they love and care about. The book is also for those who are sick, and those who might be nearing death. We learn much about the authors and their view of death, and the concepts that they are struggling with or feel the need to discuss further throughout the book, which makes the reader think about and ponder their own feelings about or view on death and dying. One of the last email exchanges is highly personal as Kacandes reveals to Gordon that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer.
© 2016 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.