A chance to go goofy and embrace our inner child for most, Halloween is probably my least favorite holiday. Even though I take pleasure in watching kids dressed up and testing their courage knocking on the doors of unfamiliar neighbors, even though I understand the holiday’s diverse and rich origins, the night will remain the Vigil of All Saints Day for me. Similarly to those in the neighborhood observing Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, it’s also a day for me to remember loved ones, friends and family members who had passed away. Memento mori. Remember death.
Other than lighting a candle and recalling cherished memories, this year also marks discovering a memorable book, A matter of death and life. The authors with identical last names, Yalom and Yalom, should have been a red flag, along with the title. Husband and wife, not an unusual combination of authorship, one would say. “Two old people in the final dance of life,” as Marylin Yalom describes it.
Except when one of them hadn’t lived to see the book published. Moreover, hadn’t lived to read the final chapters, and made peace with knowing the book’s fate and her own.
Who is better qualified to write about matters of life and death than psychiatrist Irvin Yalom, who has dedicated his career to understand grief, and the feminist author and historian Marylin Yalom? Except that this book is not one their scholarly publications. Instead, as the word order in the title suggests, A matter of death and life is a “till death do us part” story of a loving couple, reflecting on life from the perspective of death.
After Marylin’s terminal diagnosis, they chose an unorthodox coping method: documenting the final stations of their common journey. Together and alone, they wish to help others go through this painful process, whether in the role of the one dying or surviving. As the authors walk us through their daily struggles in alternating chapters, a rich and meaningful life evolves in the stories for the readers to mull over for the rest of their lives: a life with purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction, a life full of joy and love. We follow their most intimate moments with admiration and envy as they breathe care and exude understanding, while also surrounded and supported by a loving extended family and friends.
Marylin’s attitude is admirable as she learns to accept the fact of her mortality. She prepares for her last days with the utmost discipline and humility to the living, thinking through all that matters, reviewing and organizing her life, and giving away belongings, while counting her blessings all the way until the end. In her mind the biggest loss to face is not her own imminent death, but the loss of her loved ones. She summons the courage to practice such “small deaths” as departing from her beloved objects and documents, discovering some gems, such as her four-leaf clover metaphor, the meaning of life. Filled with grief over the loss of her books, she can’t even think ahead about her husband living alone, as she admits. She is not afraid of death itself, but rather the “process of dying in daily doses.”
Witnessing his wife’s daily struggles, Irvin opens up in his chapters about his own demons, dreading the day he is “home alone.” An experienced psychiatrist, he is trying his hardest to practice what he preaches in the grieving process, but it’s extremely difficult for him to face reality. It seems incomprehensible for him to accept the fact that his wife is dying in front of him, and he tries to bargain for more days with her. Referring to one of his previous books, Irvin Yalom turns to Francois de La Rochefoucauld‘s “Neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye.”
When all fails, Marylin’s choice of “physician-attended death,” along with her begging him to let her go, makes him realize that he experiences his own suffering more than the ones he counseled in the past and he should focus on his deep love towards his wife. What really helps him is imagining the situation reversed, and how he would worry about his wife’s future without him. The last chapters, written after Marylin’s death, testify about his denial and difficulties grieving. However, what really helps him is a text he himself had written “Seven Advanced Lessons in the Therapy of Grief” in Momma and the meaning of life: tales of psychotherapy. Bibliotherapy for grieving.
We all probably know couples who took their vows “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health” seriously. Married for 65 years, the Yaloms managed to rise to a new level with their “love and honor each other for as long as both live.” Is there such a thing as dying a good death? Without going into philosophy, religion, or metaphysics on life and death, meaningful lives, this book teaches us to face our own mortality. Memento mori.
Rogers, N. (2003). Halloween : From Pagan Ritual to Party Night. Oxford University Press.
Yalom, I. D. (1999). Momma and the meaning of life: tales of psychotherapy (1st ed.). Basic Books.