When a title sets the tone for a book, readers can see themselves invited into a conversation with kindness. Such is the case with Sallie Tisdale‘s Advice to Future Corpses and Those Who Love Them: A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying. The title’s diction, and the curious asterisk used in the cover art, indicate the author’s intention for as lighthearted a discussion as one can have about what remains a difficult topic in much of the Western world.
Tisdale writes from a perspective that is informed by her work as a nurse, and particularly as a palliative care nurse. Although she is a practicing Buddhist, she notes early on that the book is not a Buddhist approach to dying. Nonetheless, those influences color her choices in how she tells the stories of death and dying. Tisdale weaves the story of her Buddhist teacher’s death through the text, providing examples of dealing with death from resistance all the way to joy.
The book is written in a gentle tone, but without euphemisms, as you would hope to hear from the person who sits beside to tell you that you are going to die. Someday. That is Tisdale’s mission, as is the mission of the “good death” movement. Instead of being afraid of our inevitable death, can we ease the fear by learning some things? “How do you get ready to die?” Tisdale asks. “The same way you prepare for a trip to a place you’ve never been. Start by realizing you don’t know the way. Read a travel guide: they tell you what to expect, and have maps…” Advice for Future Corpses is intended as a travel guide to help readers on their way.
There are things we need to know about dying, and there are things we need to know about being with those who are dying. Tisdale addresses both. For those who have been caregivers for a dying person, there are sharp moments of remembering: that for those who do not die suddenly, from a heart attack or a car wreck, or other fatal event, death is a long and slow process. As future corpses, and those who love them, this reality may be different from the scenes in movies and novels that have taught us about what death is like.
Tisdale invites the reader to take a seat at the deathwatch, where we are reminded to be aware of our own reactions to emotional scenes: self-awareness can help you better understand the situation you are in with a person who is dying. Mindful listening, for one, is imperative. “Half the energy of caring for a dying person is listening, really listening.” That means not planning what you will say next, not panicking about what the other person has to say, and allowing them to have their say, even when it seems strange or nonsensical. Because Tisdale imparts some wisdom: “If you are dying, you can say anything you want.”
Aligned with this view is the firm assertion that a good death should be defined by the person who is dying, not their caregivers, family members, or doctors. Tisdale bemoans the rhetoric of obituaries that describe death as a “brave battle” in which one remains “dignified throughout her illness”, that frame dying as having a particular tenor to which we should aspire. As a palliative nurse, she offers poignant anecdotes that show that death is, in fact, difficult to manage with what we might call dignity. Dying is messy, revealing what it really means to be a human living in a body, and dying in one as well. For those are afraid, Tisdale gently asserts: “Dying is perfectly safe. It isn’t going to hurt you.”
Death can, however, be unexpected. So can a diagnosis or a realization of death’s inevitability. With this in mind, what might your relationship with death look like? Tisdale writes: “I want to meet death with curiosity and willingness. What do you want to do? Do you want to meet death with devotion, love, a sense of adventure, or do you want to rage against the failing light? Cultivate those qualities now. Master them.”
Tisdale is as plainspoken about grief as she is about the process of moving toward death. This, too, is refreshing. “No one tells you that grief is like a long march in bad weather,” she writes, but she tells the reader many things about the way that death is disorienting. The person you were, who knew the rhythms of daily life with the person who is dead, dies as well. Part of grieving is figuring out how to find your way through days with a different construct.
Perhaps most important is realizing that there is not a “right” way to grieve, and that grief may take unexpected shapes. Against the common attitude that grief is something you just “deal with” and “get past”, Tisdale offers some scientific evidence that grief is large and luminous. MRI scans show that unlike emotions that only light up one sector of the brain, grief is everywhere: in parts of the brain that deal with metabolism, visual images, and memory, among others. Rethinking attitudes toward death and dying may also bring about a shift in attitudes toward grieving, another way to make the difficult work of death a bit easier.