Dying Unafraid – by Fran Moreland Johns

The thing about a good story is it grows on you and stays with you for days. The stories of the dying in Fran Johns’ new book are like that. But this isn’t a chicken soup of inspirational tales, it’s a thick stew full of subtle and lasting flavors. There are lessons here if you want to study them, but they are not explained or even defended. The voices merely light a small corner of the dying experience.

When I started this book, I wanted to know more about Lillian, Peter, Vee and the others. I felt teased by the barest outlines of their rich lives. But as I kept reading the stories built upon each other, until they became one story of a greater humanity. There is the woman who grew up in China and came to America when women and foreign-born medical students were rare, the old handyman and gardener who found a way to get back to the earth as he died, the stories of the young, the very old and all those in between. As a careful interviewer and sensitive story teller, Johns gives us a glimpse into the way each of us might “embrace” death and be unafraid.

“Dying may not, after all, be the worst thing that ever happens to us,” Johns tells us in describing how she changed her own mind about dying. Encountering the “undefeated death” as a hospice volunteer is what led her to write this thoughtful and wonderful book. By collecting these stories, Johns hoped to discover a map that would show us all the path to a “good death.” What she found instead was that even though death is rarely desired, some people leave us markers to show us how to participate more fully in the living-and-dying process, how they died unafraid.

The people in her stories speak of things you might not have thought important: the where of dying – “the final place of the heart.” The connection to the cycles of the earth, which Johns calls “Listening to Nightsong,” and the way creativity leaves little room for fear at the end of life. The more well-known aspects of fearless dying are also here: laughter, faith, and celebration.

A compelling chapter in Dying Unafraid tells tales of “self-deliverance” and presents the question of aid in dying. Alice, a long-time patient of Compassion in Dying of Washington, tells her story. Sheila Cook, her case manager, and others at Compassion are interviewed and describe the work we do. The question becomes a personal, not political one in Johns’ capable hands. She keeps returning to the core of the issue: “Would you want the choice for yourself?”

“What do we know? All we really know is that we don’t know,” Johns tells us at the end of her book. She believes that “if dying could be fully understood and explored, in fact living itself would be diminished.” The people in Dying Unafraid understand a great deal, and you will too after you read their stories. You will be intrigued and comforted, and you might even be changed.

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