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Lessons in Dying

Monday October 22, 2007
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The Needs of the Dying: A Guide for Bringing Hope, Comfort, and Love to Life's Final Chapter by David Kessler, RN

As nurses, we comfort the dying and their families as we attempt to make the experience of death natural and peaceful — sometimes wondering if our presence is meaningful or a bit of an intrusion. David Kessler, author of this 10th anniversary edition, is familiar with the needs of the dying. For more than 20 years, he has worked with terminally ill patients, addressing their end-of-life desires. From the startup of his first home health nursing service for hospice patients to working with his mentor, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, legendary pioneer in the field of hospice, Kessler has restored power to the dying and their loved ones.

In compassionate and uplifting language, Kessler helps us understand the last chapter of our lives by identifying the key areas of concern: the right to be treated as a human being, the need for hope and spirituality, and the need to be free of physical pain. Kessler doesn't instruct us, but instead takes us by the hand and guides us along the way with comforting and poignant stories.

This is a "must read" for nurses, patients, families, and friends who want to help others during this transition. At a time when the right words are exceedingly difficult to find, Kessler helps us say goodbye to our loved ones and patients with strength and compassion.

HarperCollins $13.95 (paperback)

Lasting: Poems on Aging Edited by Meg Files

"Old Age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light." — Dylan Thomas

Lasting, edited by Meg Files, brings together 158 contemporary poems that speak to the pain, grief, and confusion we encounter with mental and physical decline and death. The collection poses penetrating questions about aging with no easy answers.

Nurses are familiar with the pain that sometimes accompanies the aging process. We study the lines on patients' faces and decipher their lives, crease by crease. And like the poets, our awareness of aging allows us to come to terms with mortality.

Lasting isn't a sentimental pep talk or a how-to-grow-old-gracefully manual, but rather an encouraging collection of poetic interpretations of aging and the nearing of death. Despite the darkness and doubt of the subject matter, you'll find yourself whispering lines that yearn for the past and inspire hopes for the future: "The trick is making a memory a blessing,/ To learn by loss the cool subtraction of desire,/ Of wanting nothing more than what has been ..." — Dana Gioia, The Lost Garden.

Other poets examine what happens to the body. Ruth Stone captures the unnerving sense of change: "My true self has been stitched to another face." Bernardo Taiz proudly states his changes: "Vascular system gridlocked,/ vertebrae reconfigured,/ a foot of colon excised here,/ a grand toe bonsai'd there."

Harvey Shapiro's moving short poem Desk reads, "After my death, my desk,/ which is now so cluttered,/ will be bare wood, simple and shining,/ as I wanted it to be in my life,/ as I wanted my life to be." This assembled collection becomes a conversation with questions and answers about universal themes that speak to us all.

Pima Press $18.00 (paperback)

To Die Well: The Right to Comfort, Calm, and Choice in the Last Days of Life by Sidney Wanzer, MD, and Joseph Glenmullen, MD

To Die Well is a careful, well-organized, thoughtful perspective of the turning points patients and families face when serious illness strikes. The authors explain in clear, practical terms how to achieve a peaceful death.

Wanzer, a leader in the right-to-die movement, advocates measures that allow patients to control decisions about end-of-life treatment. With the help of his colleague Glenmullen, a Harvard Medical School faculty member, Wanzer provides legal and medical guidelines for the terminally ill and their loved ones.

This is a book to share with patients and families as they wander through the maze of health care, struggling with end-of-life decisions. To Die Well is for all people who want to empower themselves against a healthcare system that isn't always in the patients' best interests.

Da Capo Press $24.00 (hardcover)

Terry Ratner, RN, MFA, is a freelance writer for NurseWeek and Nursing Spectrum. E-mail Bookcase@nurseweek.com.