The Protagonist: As They Lay Dying

Written by Alissa Fleck on . Posted in NY Press Exclusive.


In high school, Carole Lieberman was reading James Agee’s A Death in the Family when her beloved grandfather suddenly had a heart attack and died.

“I couldn’t help feeling guilty, as if somehow, by reading this book about death, I had caused my grandfather to die,” explained Lieberman. “When I grew up and became a psychiatrist, I learned that this is called ‘magical thinking,’ and it helped put some of my guilt to rest – though not completely.”

Your loved one was dying…what were you reading?

It’s not exactly a conversation starter for cocktail parties, but maybe good fodder for therapy or a grim, self-help book club. What you read does not always impact you so much as the context surrounding your experience of reading it. So in what ways does a book become immortalized when you read it during a period of tremendous grief?

For many people, unlike Lieberman, the act of choosing a book to read during these times is just that — an act. It’s generally not a passive experience — “oh, I just grabbed whatever off the bookshelf” — they seek out books in which they can find, or imbue, hope, significance and meaning.

USA Today recently featured a book club which consisted of only two people — a man and his dying mother. Between the time of the woman’s terminal diagnosis and her death, the two read 50 books together, in what the son later dubbed the “End of Your Life Book Club.”

Author Carla J. Hanna shared some insights with The Protagonist about what she was reading at a particularly difficult time in her life.

“My uncle, a monstrously large and socially inappropriate gold miner, died one week after my dad’s other brother, a former track and field star athlete who spent the last years of his life confined to a wheelchair from spinal injury,” said Hanna. “The two brothers passed before they reconciled from a disagreement.”

It almost sounds like the sort of juxtaposition only an author of fiction could invent.

“I read Portraits of Hope, a wonderful survey of hope from famous cancer survivors,” she explained.

The whole family came together at Hanna’s uncle’s gold mine to mourn, despite their differences, and differences they did have.

What resulted was something of a horror show: “His Christian conservative preacher-son did the ceremony with his Tammy Fae-like leopard-printed wife by his side while my uncle’s gay son held hands with his Prada-clad partner who worried that the mine tailings might ruin his wing-tipped loafers,” Hanna said.

After the funeral proceedings, while flying home, she reread Portraits of Hope. She said she finally understood its universal message of “forgiveness and acceptance.”

The practice of sometimes compulsively rereading a literary work is common in times of coping with grief.

Another novelist, Elaine Wolf, read 8 Plus 1, a collection of Robert Cormier stories, while her mother was dying.

“I re-read ‘The Moustache,’ my favorite story, at least a dozen times while caring for my mother,” she said. “There’s a line in [it] about how our parents exist outside of their relationships with us. That powerful story got me thinking about the rich life my mother had outside of her relationship with me. I was able to see her in a broader context.”

For some however, like Margaret Miller, they do just unintentionally stumble upon something  that seems fitting in times of great pain.

“Inspired by my grandfather, who was blind and listened to recorded books, I became a volunteer at Taping for the Blind,” explained Miller. “My first assignment was to read Billy Graham’s book Facing Death and the Life After.

“About halfway through the book my father was diagnosed with colon cancer,” said Miller. “I found it extraordinary timing to be reading this book aloud for someone who couldn’t see at a time that I needed this message most.”

It’s not just the loved ones of the dying who seek something from books during these times.

Megory Anderson sits with people who are dying and often reads to them. “Children’s stories are wonderful. I have often read The Little Prince, Winnie the Pooh, and Goodnight Moon,” she said.

“Sometimes the books are spiritual, but more often than not, a dying person wants one that he or she has a deep connection to,” explained Anderson. “I was asked once to read A Passage to India. Did she once live there? I don’t know. Perhaps it was only a life-long desire.”

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