Charles Cowling

There’s a new book out about dying and death. It’s called, appropriately, The D-Word. Now, there’s a heap of books out there about long-term care of the very ill; there’s another heap about bereavement. We don’t urgently need more of them. But there’s hardly anything out there about grim D. We do urgently need more D-books.

I didn’t feverishly tear it free from its Amazon packaging. Two reasons. I know the author, Sue Brayne, slightly. On a personal level I like her a lot. She’s absolutely not one of these too-nice-to-be-true people you can meet too many of in the death industry. She tells it as it is. We met at a conference of conjoined quangos which has now re-badged as Dying Matters. I blogged about it intemperately at the time. I sounded off in the street afterwards as I walked with Sue to the station. She made no objection to the f-word, either. I honour her for that. I very, very much don’t want to not like her book.

Second reason? The father of a good friend went to hospital a fortnight ago. After conducting batteries of tests, the people who work miracles, the doctors, had that conversation with the family where they make it gently clear that, this time, there’s no cure, just care. He’s going to die. Probably quite soon. Unthinkable? No, they all knew it would happen sometime; he’s been getting old fast recently. But thought about? Not much. Some things you don’t think about till you have to.

So what my friend, and his family, and his dad all need is somewhere to go where they can find out about this business of dying. They need information. And because news like this can make you feel very lonely, very disconnected, they need to know how it felt for others, too, so that they can set their experience in a broader context. And for all the well-meaning advice I have been able to offer them, and not very much at that, it’d be so much better to have a book to recommend.

Come to think of it, I need some advice, too, on how to conduct myself towards this dying man and his family. I like them all very much. I’ve known them for years. They are good people. It’s going to be really hard.

So: reviewing Sue’s book isn’t an exercise in judicious objectivity. Bluntly, it had better be very good or I’m going to feel badly let down.

And the good news is that it is superb.

Sue sets out her stall: “The D-Word is based on the lived, felt, human response of what it’s like to die.” Her method? To tell it “through the personal narratives of relatives, friends and carers”. Sue draws conclusions from these stories. She also gives us lots of useful information and, by doing so, a language of dying. Literally. A vocabulary. So that we can talk about it and understand the hazards of not talking about it – and the hazards of talking about it in treacherous euphemisms.

Sue covers the ground. A little potted history tells us how we got to be so death denying. She examines the value of an existential explanation – a faith (though she doesn’t cover atheism). She examines how professional carers regard dying. There’s an excellent chapter about survivors of violent or sudden death, what helped and what didn’t. She talks about both where to find support and how to give it. She tells us how to support the dying. And she tells us what dying feels like, much of which is the fruit of her years of research with Peter Fenwick. She does all this in just 165 pages. She has interviewed the best possible people, and must be congratulated on finding them. She has even tracked down one of the UK’s best and nicest undertakers, James Showers, whose definition of a funeral is, I think, both moving and brilliant. A funeral, he says, transforms “a fact – that someone has died – into a ritual that is authentic and relevant to those who were close to that person, to help them say goodbye in public and with meaning … to turn their grief into something beautiful.”

I don’t know how many copies Sue has sold yet – it’s early days. She’s just sold another. I am sending one to my friend as soon as I have posted this. Thank you, Sue.

You can buy the book from Amazon. As recommended as it gets. Find it here.

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