When embarking on the writing of a book, an author must consider how large of an audience the subject matter will draw.
In “What Does It Feel Like to Die?” (Kensington Publishing, June 2019), local author Jennie Dear targets a huge demographic – every single one of us – in a clear-minded handbook on what to expect from that most universal subject we rarely consider but cannot escape.
Dear’s new book chronicles the journeys many of us will experience as we are ushered out of “temporary immortality” into the “land of the living and dying.” How do people die? What does it feel like? Is there a “best” place to die? How does one cope with facing death? What happens when your body begins to shut down? Is there such a thing as a “good” death?
Dear uses her research skills as a journalist, communication skills as a teacher, and compassion as a hospice volunteer to weave interviews with researchers, caregivers, doctors and patients into a constructive perspective on what we may expect for ourselves and our loved ones at the end of life. Perhaps more importantly, she uses the experience of losing her mother to metastatic breast cancer to shine a light on an intimate subject usually shrouded in darkness.
When Dear’s parents first learned about the cancer, they called her. “My father is not a terribly calm man, but he said, very calmly, something to this effect: ‘Your mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer.’”
Dear writes: “There was a pause, and then a noise I can best describe as not quite a sob or a yell, but feral and animal-like. It was so uncharacteristic that I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know for certain, whether the sound came from my father or my mother.”
She guesses this was when her mother experienced the “existential crisis” or “existential slap,” the visceral realization many patients experience when they’re diagnosed with a serious disease.
Dear’s voice is straight-forward, yet compassionate, in showing how most of us will share common trajectories of decline toward the end of our lives. She explores the physiological, emotional and social aspects of a fate that involves dying over a period of time, rather than suddenly in an accident.
While the information is unflinching in terms of discussing the physical and mental struggles of the dying process, it is also somehow surprisingly comforting to have what to expect laid out in plain view.
“People who are diagnosed with a fatal disease sometimes do more than cope. They grow. They repair or strengthen relationships. They find a deeper spirituality or meaning in the life that remains for them,” Dear writes. “They create a legacy of good memories for the people they leave behind. When any of this happens, it tends to happen because of – not despite – the challenges of facing death and struggling with pain and loss.”
We learn that dying involves “hard work” and is never easy in terms of navigating a maze of medical interventions and physical challenges while trying to put one’s affairs in order and come to terms with the meaning of life.
The book explores the ongoing evolution of the medical industry in the treatment and care for those in the dying process, while chronicling what hospice care is and is not, where it came from, where it may be headed and how it can help us navigate both the physical and spiritual realms involved in passing from what we know into the unknown.
Dear also co-wrote, with Fort Lewis College professor Faron Scott, “The Responsible Journalist: An Introduction to News Reporting and Writing,” (Oxford, 2014), a textbook that instructs young journalists as much on ethical and critical thinking as it does on basic news reporting skills. Dear received her Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico and was an associate professor of English at FLC for 10 years.