A Book on Dying Well

Content Warning: discusses aging, dying, and grief. Also contains spoilers of Jenkinson’s Die Wise.

In late March of this year, I read 90% of a 416-page book in one sitting, overnight, from about 9 PM to 5 AM.

I was nearing the end of what was supposed to be a 60-day solitary meditation retreat at the Monastic Academy (MAPLE). I later extended the retreat to 100 days, because it was going well – but at the time, it seemed like it was going poorly, like I had wasted tens of days of my life. I was feeling desperate.

When I began my solitary retreat in January 2020, I had heard about what the internet was then calling “Wuhan coronavirus.” At the time, I had heard that the death rates were estimated to be 30%. I entered that retreat believing I might very well die during it, and that if I were to survive, up to a third of my friends and family members might be dead when I emerged.

Although I was removed from the news during the retreat, I was able to infer in March that the situation with the virus was worsening. People at MAPLE had started wearing masks, putting up health warning signs, and putting a strange (copper) tape on all of the building’s door handles.

Moreover, I had received news that my uncle had died several days before. He had been in poor health for years, so it wasn’t a surprise, but I didn’t know for sure whether he had died of natural causes or of COVID-19.

In other words, all of this made the perfect storm for me to push the limits of my sanity and stability. My uncle had died. The world was facing a super-virus I knew little about. For all I knew, I and everyone I loved would be next. Above all, the meditation retreat I had hoped would help me find the end of suffering – hadn’t.

If meditation wasn’t going to help – or so it seemed – why not read a book about death?

For years, we have had a copy of Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise on our shelves at MAPLE. Jenkinson is sometimes called the Angel of Death or the Griefwalker. He worked in palliative care in Canada for many years, helping dying people and their families to face death. He was the subject of a 2008 documentary film, Griefwalker. In recent years, he has become well-known for Die Wise as well as a newer book, Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble, which I haven’t yet read. He is also the founder of and main teacher at an educational institute, The Orphan Wisdom School.

In the last paragraph, I introduced an unusual person in a conventional way. Here’s how Jenkinson introduces himself in his biography in Die Wise:

Conceived while the ash of the Second World War settled. A sustained and sustaining influence thereafter. I am read to beginning then, and for years afterward. Some ability to story-hear and story-see comes to me, and persists. Very young and, mysteriously, dying. Physicians can’t explain when, a week later, I don’t die after all. Eventually, everyone in the house gets used to this, and it is forgotten. Shipwrecked in the Mediterranean. A stone mason in Gibraltar. An angel visits me in Notre Dame Cathedral. Other misadventures deepen my days. Harvard University (Master of Theology): Fall in love with learning, receive an unearned scholarship and become a legal alien. In the normal confusion of such a thing I enlist in training for the priesthood, having never been to church. I am counseled otherwise, which was a good idea for everyone involved. The strange dream of a devotional life is traded for learning something of the history of the world. Gathered up into an undeclared apprenticeship to a magisterial black storyteller in America, a man aflame, and from him learn the majesty of the spoken word. Here I see incarnate human courage conjured by an endangered, endangering time, and everything changes. University of Toronto (Master of Social Work): Here I obtain a working visa that grants me entry to the helping professions. Years are spent learning the elaborations of human sorrow. Marriage and children. The limits of all things psychological become clear. The mythic and poetic poverty of my time becomes clearer. This is the principal affliction. I begin a decade in the desert unawares. Learn some skills of the hand: stone carving, canoe making. Build a house and swear I’ll never do it again. I write a book about money and what I imagine are the soul’s desires. The publisher goes bankrupt. The book is discontinued before it is continued. I buy cases of it from a bargain book outlet in a mall, and swear I’ll never do it again. Somewhere in there I enter the second half of my life. Though clearly not organizational material I am courted into the health care system. Unwisely I accept. First encounters with the mysteries of palliative care. I am now in the death trade unawares, where no one wants to die. The unadorned madness of a death phobic culture invites me to dance, and I dance. I appoint myself its adversary. The beneficiary of administrative benign neglect, I inadvertently begin the revolution of death-centered care. For a while it works: creator of a center for children’s grief, assistant professor in a medical school. The revolt is time sensitive: I am counseled otherwise again. Marriage again. The National Film Board of Canada produces a documentary on my work from this time: Griefwalker. I build another house and swear … People bereft of ceremonial tuition ask me to do their weddings, their baby blessings and house blessings and funerals, and I do them. The great longing for ancestry and for elders is under it all. An Anishnaabe elder calls me “a great rememberer,” another worthy assignment. I begin farming. Desirous of big learning I conjure a school for orphan wisdom that might teach the unauthorized history of North America and other things, certain that no one will come. I’m wrong again: they do. Teaching across the continent and in Europe ensues. Life resembles an extended rock-and-roll tour, minus everything you can think of. Grandchildren. Somewhere in there I decide to testify to what came to me during my time in the death trade. My breathing is troubled, continuing to live becomes iffy, we go to Mexico in the event that this is it. I write the dying book in the shadow of an overlooked Aztec pyramid. I call it Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul. The “manifesto” part troubles some people, but I decide to be honest about it. I don’t die after all, again. I go on.

Perhaps you have a sense of the man, and the book, from this paragraph, which is unlike any other author’s biography that I’ve read. Jenkinson is a wordsmith, a world-class storyteller, and a man who’s earned his wisdom.

When I first came across Jenkinson’s prose years ago, I found it cloying, long-winded, and hard to take in. I found his book shortly after all of my living grandparents had died, within several short years of each other. My heart was hurting badly, and I didn’t know how to feel the grief. His prose hurt my ears and stabbed my gut.

Years later, on this retreat, I was finally ready to read his work. His words sounded totally different. They came in, page after page, as a beautiful gift of wisdom, the sharp, crisp sound of sanity, all handed to me gently, with love and poetry.

As the reviewer who wrote the preface shares, the book avoids simple platitudes and take-home lessons. It also resists simple summarization. Still, in this post, I will attempt to share the most impactful lessons and ideas that this book brought to me, both to remember them for myself and to share them with you.

Die Wise as Manifesto

Die Wise does not follow the typical structure you find in many non-fiction books. It does not have a central thesis, supporting arguments, and take-home exercises. Instead, it leaves you unsettled, desperate for a way to face death and life, both your own and others.

Despite its unusual structure, there are some central claims made in the book, whose subtitle does identify the book as A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul. In a chapter at the beginning of the book, Jenkinson does make a few claims about Dying Wise. Here they are, excerpted and abbreviated:

  • DYING WISE IS A RIGHT OF EVERYONE. Most would agree, but the agreement means little until we are willing to proceed as if dying well is also a shared responsibility, binding upon us all.
  • DYING WISE IS A MORAL OBLIGATION. Dying well is not a matter of enlightened self-interest or personal preference. If you can begin to see how dying badly poisons the social, political, professional, and personal discourse about the purpose and meaning of health care and social welfare and being born and dying, if you get a glimpse of how the concentric circles of mayhem and spell casting attending a bad death do not end with that death but actually accelerate and deepen and turn into best practice manuals and family mythologies that have generations of unintended consequence, then you can know each death properly as another chance to die well and to learn the adult mystery of deep living in the face of what often seems to rob life of its depth. Dying well must become an obligation that living people and dying people owe to each other and to those to come.
  • DYING WISE IS A POLITICAL ACT. Dying well is… a nonviolent insurrection that dares the status quo to oppose it or prevent it. Dying well gathers adversaries…Dying well means dying knowing that there is much at stake for the greater good. Whose death is it, anyway? It is all of our deaths, one death at a time, until our time comes. It is one enduring place where we can declare what and who we are willing to be to each other. We can reclaim our way of dying and decide upon it, and we must do so now. We can take it from the hands of professionalization and privacy and legislated monopoly only by assuming the greater responsibility of learning about death during the course of our lives, and teaching it if we are able, and by being an exemplar, an incarnation of what we advocate when our time comes.
  • DYING WISE IS AN ACT OF LOVE. It carries an abiding faith in life, it carries love for the world, and it asks that same faith and love of those who attend to it when it comes. Dying well is not the end of parenting, but the fullness of parenting, not the end of a marriage, but the last great act of a married life. Dying well is a bequest that you leave to those you love, probably the only thing that in the end will not be eaten by moths, apportioned by lawyers, or bought for quarters in a yard sale. Dying well is the way you could be known by those you won’t live long enough to meet, the way by which they might feel loved by you after you die.
  • DYING WISE IS SPIRITUAL ACTIVISM. It doesn’t require you to change your religion or get a religion or free yourself from one. Dying well is a portion of what your religion owes the world, as part of earning its keep, and what you owe your religion, as a part of you earning yours.
  • DYING WISE IS IMMENSELY HARD LABOR. In a time and place that is death-phobic and grief-illiterate, dying well is mostly a sedated rumor…We deserve better than we get when it comes to dying, and until we change all of this, dying will ask more of dying people than should be asked of them. Dying is not what happens to you. Dying is what you do.
  • DYING WISE IS A SUBVERSIVE, TROJAN HORSE KIND OF DEED. How we die, and how we care for dying people, and how we carry the dead: Taken all together, this work makes our village life or breaks it. That much and more is at stake in every terminal diagnosis, at every deathbed, at every memorial service…How we live and die, the whole gaggle of decisions, torments, convictions, loves, and losses, all of this rolling on is the river of our days. Dying, and helping someone die, is a time for watching that river roll on and getting to know its eddies and its ways. It is a time for standing still beside the old pine, or beside where it used to be, learning life. Dying is not a time for not dying.

Again, these are excerpts from Jenkinson’s book. Like the rest of the book, this passage is more poetic than practical. However, he does make a number of additional claims in the book. These are my own articulations of his central claims:

  • In our time, death has become increasingly defined by medical technology, and the materialist, scientific, secular humanism that gives rise to that technology. While we can reduce pain and extend life, this has unexpected consequences and makes the dying process a long, torturous, hellish, and even evil affair for the dying, their families, and their caretakers.
  • When they begin the dying process people fear pain, but we can by and large manage pain with medical technology. Still, people in our culture tend to die in terrible emotional pain and confusion.
  • Our culture is death-phobic. We avoid, repress, and lie about death during our lives and during the dying process as carried out in hospitals and by medical professionals. We actively avoid telling the dying that they are dying, although we should.
  • We are afraid of death and pain, and we will pay any price to prevent and procrastinate our inevitable death. This causes us to steal our life from the world.
  • We wake up each day expecting to live. This is a misguided, abnormal (historically speaking), and insane belief that damages ourselves and the world.
  • While we are aware that everyone dies, we do not necessarily know that we are going to die. We begin to die when we realize or face the fact of our own inevitable and impending death.
  • Our culture’s story of death is impoverished. We are overly focused on medical technology, on extending life, and have no consensus about what happens after death, other than “no one knows” or “nothing happens.” The conspicuous absence of a story about death makes dying traumatic for those in our culture, but it need not be so. Cultures that are less materially well off tend to have far richer, wiser, and more useful stories about death. In these cultures, death is not traumatic.
  • Wiser cultures use rite of passage rituals to initiate children into adulthood. This involves exposure to and the real risk of death. In these cultures, the death of children is terribly sad but not tragic. Life is a gift and a privilege, not a right or an inevitability.
  • In our culture, we mistakenly take the death of children as unfair. This is our own ignorance and delusion, not a senseless, cruel property of the universe.
  • Wiser cultures have an ongoing relationship with the dead, with their ancestors. We, on the other hand, forget our dead. A major part of our fear of death is a recognition that the living in our culture will, after a short time, go on living as if we had never died or lived.
  • Death is a mystery.
  • One can die well, and one can die poorly. There are many ways of dying poorly, but relatively few ways of dying well.
  • We should support the dying in dying well, and hold them accountable to it. We need a new language for doing so. We also need to learn the skill and art of grieving.
  • We, too, can die well – we can die with wisdom and grace. This is an art that can be learned. Moreover, learning this art of dying, and facing our own deaths, can teach us to live well.

These claims come in waves, over the course of the book’s hundreds of pages. Jenkinson inserts story after story in the body of his text – stories from his own life, or from his teachers – stories about death and the fundamentals of life. They break your assumptions about death and life in this culture, and they may nearly break your heart, too.

It is an understatement to say that I loved Die Wise. I can’t remember the last book I loved this much, and was so deeply impacted by. I would recommend it to anyone who has a loved one who has died, will die, or who will themselves die some day – which is to say, everyone. We could all stand to wrestle with Jenkinson’s observations. The book has no easy six-step plan for “Dying Wise.” Instead, it will prod you to ask yourself and your loved ones hard questions, about how you want to live, and how you want to die.

The only major criticism that I have of Die Wise is that it should be shorter. The ratio of insights to page is astonishing, and yet it could be crisper, tighter. If you read Jenkinson, or listen to him speak, the book’s length will make sense. The man loves to speak, to tell stories, to use his tongue and pen to help others. I don’t begrudge him that – but his book is weaker for its length, and will reach fewer people.

Conclusions

This post is not meant to replace Die Wise, but rather to remind myself and others of its ideas, and to inspire you to read Jenkinson himself in the original language, which is a majestic and singular sort of English. Even if its ideas and stories stir you up, which they are likely to do, it may still be worth pressing on and into the book itself, as well – for, as Jenkinson says, “it is a book for all who will fail to live forever.” “Blessed with a good or well-exercised memory,” Jenkinson says, its stories and ideas can prepare us for the death of our loved ones and ultimately our own death.

Further Reading

Thank you to Tommy Bonn for editing this post.

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