Book Review

I’ve recently finished reading When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. I chose to read it because I knew that it asked the Big Questions. You know the ones: what gives life meaning, what’s the meaning of life, and how to face death and come to terms with it. This book also resonates with me on personal and professional levels. Sometimes, and more often than I should be, I’m the first person my clients have spoken to about end-of-life care, what quality of life means to them, and what sort of decisions they would make when looking death in the face.

It all sounds rather dramatic and actually it should be quite ordinary. We’re all going to die. It’s a certainty. You can’t gamble on it, you can try and prolong when it will happen but you can’t avoid it. So, I often ask myself, why don’t we talk about death more often, with more openness and accept it rather than ignoring it?

The reason it comes up for me in my professional life is when I’m discussing Lasting Powers of Attorney for Health and Welfare. In these powers of attorney, you can give your attorneys the authority to say yes or no to ‘life-sustaining’ treatment. This is not defined further as it depends on your given circumstances.  It could, for example, be that you end up on life support, or are being kept alive by a drip providing you with nutrients for survival. If you no longer have the mental capacity to make decisions about your health, your attorneys can make these decisions for you. How can they know what you’d want them to do, if you haven’t talked about it with them or indeed thought about it at all? This is why, I am often the person who is in effect, asking my clients, what does quality of life mean to them? What constitutes a good life to carry on living? I’m asking them the Big Questions. So, it’s just as well I have a degree in Politics and Philosophy!

The author Paula Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon diagnosed with an inoperable cancer at the age of thirty-six. He died at the age of thirty-seven. As a surgeon of the brain he also asked patients ‘What makes life meaningful enough to go on?’ He needed to know these things so that he could make medical decisions at the operating table. So he got an insight into people’s lives, their values and their fears. As I read this I realised that I too find myself in the privileged position of discussing these matters with my clients. Or at least I raise the questions for them so they can talk to their loved ones about their desires, should the time come when they are incapable of expressing them. Paul says that this is when he is seeing people at their ‘most authentic moments’ where only what is most valuable to them matters. What if we lived our lives like this every day? I wonder how we would do things differently and how our priorities would shift.  Would the minutia of life fade away or would we relish it?

The book left me with mixed emotions. I was angry at Paul’s death and sad at its normality. What I thought most cruel about Paul’s death was that he didn’t deserve to die so young, in the midst of a promising career. But, as he said it was not a question of ‘why me?’ but rather a question of ‘why not me?” How philosophical!

Would I recommend this book to you? Yes, because it’s not morbid or sad. It recounts the life (albeit a short one) of a remarkable man. One who left a lasting legacy in the form of his book and his daughter Cady. And if you’re interested in those Big Questions, as everyone should be, it will help you and your family to talk about them. If you’d like to talk about these matters and a wide variety of death-related topics, you might try the Swindon Death Café run by Sue Holden once a month. Should you feel you’d like to formalise your decisions by making a Lasting Power of Attorney or drafting your Will, then I’m here to help. I’d also love to learn about what quality of life means to you. I’m always up for a philosophical discussion or you can leave me your thoughts in the comments.

You can also contact me via email at info@swindonwillwriting.co.uk or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.  Do also contact me via my website www.swindonwillwriting.co.uk

A final note, as I’m sure someone will ask me; what does quality of life mean to me? Well, I’m not going to divulge everything. But in my top ten list of things that most matter to me is the ability to taste and enjoy eating chocolate! So perhaps I’m not all that deep and meaningful after all!

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