Last spring I was delighted to be asked to review a book by author and teacher Stephen Jenkinson, whose work has had a tremendous impact on me. Though Jenkinson has yet to visit the Twin Cities to discuss his book, I hope my review – recently published by the Minnesota Coalition for Death Education and Support and shared here – will pique the attention of those interested in challenging our prevailing understanding, and addressing the great misunderstandings that have informed the death and grief phobia so prevalent in north American culture today.
Who would expect that a death would alter their way of life forever? Or that a book would show up on the heels of such a harrowing crossroads to offer the only thing close to solace — the idea that perhaps we must finally “make room for dying in [our] way of living?” Certainly not me at 54, and certainly not so soon after my sister Christine’s death at 51 in early 2014. That first raw and surreal spring, as I was grasping for a language for my grief, a friend shared a link to the 2008 documentary Griefwalker, and in the midst of the most penetrating sorrow I’ve ever known, I clicked that link.
In Griefwalker, I was introduced to Stephen Jenkinson, former director of palliative care counseling at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital (with masters degrees in social work and theology), activist, storyteller, author, and teacher. In conversations with dying people, families, care providers, and the film’s narrater and director, Jenkinson gives voice to the scope and prevalence of death-phobia in our culture, and the unintended and unacknowledged effects on the dying and those who love them. Remarkably, he puts forth the monumental idea of grieving and dying as skills to be cultivated — even held as “prized possessions” — and laments the misunderstanding and isolation that presently underscore dying (and grieving) in our part of the world. With Griefwalker came the profound realization that dying could be done, and done well (or as Jenkinson puts it, extravagantly), expressly for those who would live to see it, and that this was what my sister had desired and — against the odds — achieved with her death.
My grieving heart wanted more. I ordered Jenkinson’s newest book, Die Wise, published this past March, and dove in. I’ve read it twice, and continue to revisit sections of it often, as a workbook of sorts, a way to continue processing the hard-earned wisdom that Jenkinson elaborates on, and that resonates so accurately with all I’ve experienced as absent from my personal, and our collective, experience of death and grief today.
This is a book to turn to for the forthright asking of the weighty and difficult questions — the ones that hang in the air unspoken and lingering when someone is dying, or that wake you up in the middle of the night while you’re in the throes of mourning. He has called this book “a manifesto for sanity and soul,” and that it is — a ponderous opus for those of us who have felt crestfallen and abandoned by the status quo during one of life’s cardinal and perennial passages. It is, in Jenkinson’s words, “for those of you working in the death trade with all kinds of good intent about helping people,” and “most especially for those of you who have the news of your dying in hand, or who are waiting for the news that seems certain to come in, and for those who love you.” Chapters with titles such as “The Ordeal of a Managed Death,” “Stealing Meaning From Dying,” “The Tyrant Hope,” and “What Dying Asks of Us All” go straight to the heart of what families and dying persons themselves are caught up in, and in them, I learned about Jenkinson himself, personally and professionally, and the experiences that have shaped his philosophy and teaching.
His writing style, much like his speaking, is a provocative mix of reasoned discourse punctuated by the soul-stirring accounts of a master story-teller. My understanding of the text benefitted from having listened to a number of his interviews, videos of talks (many of which can be found at orphanwisdom.com), and from viewing the film, Griefwalker.
Early on he cautions readers to abandon hope for a master plan to fix what’s broken, yet as somber as some realities may be, there is possibility in these pages — a manifesto is both testament and plea. I read the book looking for my cognitive schemas and hard-wired biases to be challenged, and I was not disappointed. More importantly I found humane sustenance and the beginnings of a language for what seemed to be an innate, but unschooled, knowledge around grief. Ultimately, Stephen Jenkinson pleads eloquently with us to bring death (and our own forgotten ancestry) — fully acknowledged — into our daily lives, to our benefit now, and as the last and lasting gift to all we love.