Dr Ranjana Srivastava is an oncologist who has spent years working with patients in the battle against cancer, particularly in the final stages of their care. In A Better Death, she expands on the lessons her career has taught her about death and dying. As the title suggests, dying well is also about living well. Dr Ranjana argues that the decisions you make in life, and in the final months of life, not only impact how you meet your own death, but how your family and others close to you are able to meet it as well. She offers unique insights into the emotions and challenges people experience when they face their own mortality.
In many ways, this is an instruction manual. Dr Ranjana presents us with the issues that arise when a person starts thinking about their own death or the death of someone in their family. With the aid of case studies, she suggests effective ways to handle the topic of death – which approaches worked, and what led patients to suffer unnecessarily. She highlights the qualities which constitute a better death – these include kindness, gratitude and acceptance. The final third of the book contains advice to patients and their families, on practical issues like when to work and when to rest, when to visit people who are sick, how to handle end of life care at home or in hospital, the importance of discussing wills, what pain relief offers, as well as more nebulous issues of regret and grief. Her frequent recourse to fables and Buddhist teachings offers a conversational and personable style. I can imagine those dealing with cancer, or other chronic illnesses, whether personally or through family or friends, will appreciate A Better Death as a philosophical and a useful tool.
This in no way suggests that only those who are dying or know someone who is dying should read this book. The lessons that Dr Ranjana teaches are not only applicable to cancer sufferers or their families, but to those in the midst of healthy lives. Like it or not, death is life’s only certainty, and understanding how we think and feel about it can help us to think about what we are doing with the days we are alive.
A Better Death should be mandatory reading. Dr Ranjana encourages us to think and talk about our mortality. She offers a way forward to deal with the enormity of death. Her words are an inspiration to live each day with calmness and grace. This is the kind of book you read and then you want everyone close to you to read as well.
Reviewer: Susannah Whaley
Simon & Schuster, RRP $37.99