If you are interested in overcoming our society's fear of death and improving the way we handle the dying process, you might consider starting a year-long end-of-life book club in your community. It may sound excessive to spend an entire year reading and talking about death, but remember that Tibetans begin preparing for death as soon as they reach adulthood--surely we can dedicate one year to our own preparations for the end-of-life.
In our society death is shoved into the background of our lives and goes largely unexamined until circumstances force us to pay attention. And by that time it is often too late to make meaningful choices for our life and our death and we end up receiving the default end-of-life care resorted to by our healthcare system: overtreatment and overly "medicalized" care.
Edward Morgan once wrote, "A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it." Since there is no more fragile thought for most of us than death, a book can be the perfect place to study the process, learn all of death's angles and edges, and discover the choices and options that are the best fit for us.
Why start a community end-of-life book club?
There are many reasons to consider starting your own end-of-life book club but the first to consider is the fact that death is a universal issue that each and every one of us will face. Death is the "common ground" that cuts across all racial, religious, political, and economic barriers--no one will ultimately avoid it. Death is the one subject that will apply to every member of your book club and can be a means of uniting your community or group around a shared human concern.
By reading books about death you will have the opportunity to learn from those who have gone before you and faced the greatest crisis of life. These books will provide you with a glimpse into the variety of experiences death offers and also the paths others have found through the difficulties of the dying process for themselves and their loved ones. There are no better teachers about death and dying than those who have encountered it already.
Also if you are going to spend your time reading books, which I highly recommend, why not devote some of it to reading books that have the potential to educate you about the most important passage of your life. It just makes sense to prepare for death like you would prepare for an amazing trip to a foreign land--get to know the history, the customs, the "travel tips" and the recommended "sites" along the way to your destination.
Tips for structuring your book club
First, attract members. Perhaps you can start with an existing book club, a group of your friends, or a church group or community service organization and propose the idea to people. You could try starting a Meetup group and advertising an end-of-life focused book club. It's important to ask for a commitment from people--let them know that you expect them to join for the entire year and not just a month or two. Of course, exceptions will always be necessary since life has a way of changing our plans, but you will need to have a fairly consistent group that meets on a regular basis.
Plan your meeting times. Once a month is often ideal for a book club and it is helpful to choose a particular day of the week and time so that group members can plan ahead--for example, the first Friday of every month. You will need around 2 hours to have time for a meaningful discussion and some refreshments and casual conversation.
Select the books. Come prepared with a list of books to recommend, but allow the group members to make the final selection by vote. Find out the specific needs of your group so that you can focus on topics that will be most helpful to everyone. You can download a template here with a suggested year-long schedule of books.
Choose a lead for each book. One person should commit to leading the discussion for each book you select. That person will read the book in detail and prepare questions for the rest of the group to discuss.
Plan your sessions. You will gain the most benefit from these readings if you plan ahead to discuss (1) what you have learned from the book and (2) how you can apply what you have learned to your own life. For example, if you read about the importance of having an advance directive, the application of that lesson is to actually complete your own advance directive. Let the books you read guide you toward the steps you need to take to prepare for your own end-of-life.
Creating your book club template
One way to approach selecting the best books for your end-of-life book club is to have in mind a "template" for the issues you would like to study and discuss. You can choose a specific issue for each month and then find a book that matches the topic. Those who feel most comfortable or interested in particular subjects can volunteer to be the leads for the corresponding books.
It is advisable to start with books that have less confrontational and personal subject matter in the beginning. Then you can gradually move into more emotional and challenging material in later months when the group members have had time to bond and feel safe with one another.
Also you may want to include a mix of non-fiction and fiction books, along with a few that are lighter or even humorous, to break up some of the intensity of these topics. The goal is to create a safe environment within your book club where questions can be expressed and fears can be discussed together as you look at this very human passage of death.
Be thoughtful and intentional as you create your book club template so that you maximize the benefits from the reading and discussions that will take place. This will provide the best opportunity for group members to grow in their own comfort with the subject of death and to complete the planning necessary to find dignity and meaning in the dying process.
You can download a sample template here, which includes book recommendations for each issue to be considered.
By creating an end-of-life book club in your community you will help others set off on a year-long exploration of the most important subject of life: how we bring to a close our final days. When have thoroughly examined this "fragile thought" of death then we can choose to live fully in each and every moment available to us.
About the Author:
Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician and the author of the award-winning book "What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying." She is a frequent keynote speaker and radio show guest whose profound teachings have helped many find their way through the difficult times of life. Learn more about her work at karenwyattmd.com.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.