The Good Death, When Breath Becomes Air and More

Death goes in and out of fashion. The topic lingers behind euphemisms for a few years, and then someone calls it forth again:Elisabeth Kübler-Ross with her disciplined On Death and Dying in 1969; Susan Sontag with her angry but profound Illness as Metaphor in 1978 and the empathetic follow-up AIDS and Its Metaphors, in 1988; Derek Humphry, implausibly, with his suicide handbook Final Exit in 1991; Sherwin Nulandwith his magisterial How We Die in 1993; more recently, Joan Didion with her agonizingly precise The Year of Magical Thinking in 2005; and Atul Gawande with his humane Being Mortal in 2014. Each of these books argues, one way or another, for a continuum between life and its conclusion. The gloss of youthful vitality can persuade us that life is for the living, but life is also for the dying, and repudiating that ultimate punctuation escalates our anxiety and deprives us of final dignity. Time and again, we must clarify our individual and collective beliefs about how the last chapter changes the rest of the narrative. “Or not to be” is not in fact a question.

– Andrew Solomon

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