Atul Gawande is top tier when it comes to skillful medical writers. I think of him in the same vein as Abraham Verghese and the late Paul Kalanithi. I had heard wonderful things about his book but was hesitant to dive into Being Mortal because of its inherently morbid focus. Turns out, I was pleasantly surprised by the balance between empathy and practical advice Gawande employs throughout the book. While it was certainly thought provoking, it didn’t leave me feeling heavy or hopeless. On the contrary – it gave me a path forward on a topic that so few speak about: death, or more accurately, dying.
What gives life meaning when you are at the end of it? This is a question few of us consider in concrete terms, but Gawande lays out the critical need to answer this for ourselves and our loved ones before the clock is ticking (or at least ticking loudly). While we are all aware of the need for medical directives, what happens when a procedure or illness goes awry? Would you be able to answer the heart wrenching questions about a course of action for a loved one based on what they’ve told you they prefer if they aren’t able to answer in the moment? Do you know what truly matters to them – or better yet, what truly matters to you?
Not only does Gawande offer a set of questions to serve the purpose of starting the conversation and helping us answer these questions, but he also explores studies that have shown how different living situations affect end-of-life happiness. He goes through the history of assisted living facilities and some of the newer developments in elder care over the past few years. Throughout the entire novel, he weaves anecdotes about patients, his in-laws, and his parents.
Sure, the topic is morbid, but it is important. We can pretend we aren’t all going to die one day or we can acknowledge it and put things in place to ensure the best situation possible for ourselves and loved ones when the time comes. Perhaps it is easier for me to read this as a 25-year-old in pretty good health, but from the anecdotes in his book it is clear – there is no “age” for death. It can happen at any time to anyone, and if anything, his book encouraged me to make every day count. Living – the act of breathing and eating and being with people you care about – truly is miraculous. Being Mortal made me appreciate the day in and day out of simply “being” that I so often take for granted.
“In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life maybe empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves.”
Stats: 304 pages
Recommended for: Adults at any stage in life, particularly if they are uncertain of how to proceed with having difficult conversations about death and dying with loved ones.
Up Next: Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe