Wellness

How Nearly Losing His Life Made This Author Embrace Death

TED speaker and triple amputee Dr. BJ Miller talks about his new book, "A Beginner's Guide to the End," and why millennials are the “sandwich generation” of caregivers.

You could forgive BJ Miller for wanting to orient his life away from death. After all, he became acutely aware of his own mortality at just 19, when an accident in his sophomore year at college left him perilously close to dying himself.

When he was a student at Princeton, Miller was accidentally shocked with 11,000 volts of electricity while hanging around an abandoned railway line with some friends. He was so horrifically burned that doctors had to amputate three of his limbs.

And yet Miller, now 47, has spent most of his adult life dealing with people facing their own end.

Author BJ Miller during and after a taping of HuffPost show "Between You and Me" with host Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani in New York City on July 17, 2019.
Author BJ Miller during and after a taping of HuffPost show "Between You and Me" with host Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani in New York City on July 17, 2019.

“Leaning into the subject of suffering, leaning into the subject of mortality, was directly therapeutic for me. It wasn’t an intellectual interest or a recreational thought,” Miller explained during a recent sitdown for HuffPost’s “Between You & Me.” “Getting through my day required me to lean into it, and that’s where I just saw all this beauty that comes from it.”

And lean in he has: Miller’s 2015 TED Talk on the subject of death garnered over 9 million views, and as the former executive director of San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project, Miller confronted death on a daily basis. He saw patients and their families struggling to bridge what he says is a glaring educational gap that all Americans face ― navigating how to die well.

His new book,“A Beginner’s Guide to the End: Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death,” is as close to a how-to manual to death as I’ve ever come across. It’s methodically researched, with both the dying and their loved ones in mind.

Author BJ Miller during and after a taping of HuffPost show "Between You and Me" with host Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani in New York City on July 17, 2019.
Author BJ Miller during and after a taping of HuffPost show "Between You and Me" with host Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani in New York City on July 17, 2019.

Miller and his co-author Shoshana Berger don’t shy away from elementary matters like writing a will, nor from emotionally complex ones, like the importance of forgiveness before you pass away, and advice for caregivers — which feels particularly timely given that a recent study by the National Alliance for Caregiving estimates that 1 in 4 family caregivers are millennials. It’s a phenomenon that’s given rise to the phrase “sandwich generation,” because this group are often caring for both an elderly relative and a child at the same time.

And yet, the resources don’t exist for caregivers as robustly as they should.

“These numbers are huge and growing. It’s just that people are doing this on the side or under the table, and it’s just not seen. And they don’t talk about it at work, for whatever reason,” Miller said. “I’ve watched caregivers come to clinic. And here we are in a hospital, this huge thing designed for a patient — but there’s no place for caregivers. There’s no language, there’s no award for caregivers. It’s not honored as it should be.”