THE HOW-TO book has finally reached the ultimate
realms of instruction with a spate of books on how to suffer gracefully and die exalted. In England they even have a guide on how to commit successful suicide.
Of the new movement to embrace death, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is undisputed high priestess. Her five stages of dying are respected basic tenets for professionals who work with the terminally ill. Nevertheless I have to report that her new book, Working It Through (Macmillan, $15.95), which recounts typical encounter sessions in her California workshops on "life, death and transition," raises what Ron Rosenbaum, writing in Harper's, calls canoodling with death to an art that borders on the absurd.
"We do startle a few of the participants at the beginning of the real work sessions," says Kubler-Ross, and her readers may also be taken aback when they read about the mattress and the rubber hose with which the troubled beat out their anger, the telephone books they shred in their agony. Read? You can see them actually doing it in the photographs by Mal Warshaw whose studies of workshop participants in various stages of emotional agony illustrate this book. Warshaw's subjects are caught weeping, embracing, "blissed out" and beating inanimate objects to "externalize negative and unnatural feelings."
At the workshops, held at Shanti Nilaya or Home of Peace, cancer victims, severely handicapped people and the bereaved spend five days getting in touch with what they are told is their own self-destructiveness by sharing their impotent rage and agonies. Kubler-Ross describes these sessions as "quite emotional" and I am ready to believe it after reading graphic accounts of radiation-treated cancer victims snatching off their wigs to exhibit their bald heads and post-operative patients showing off their colostomy equipment.
On Thursday nights the workshops offer a ritual round a campfire in which participants are encouraged to step forward to burn a pine cone that they have symbolically invested with the negative qualities they mean to leave behind. The back cover of Working It Through is full of testimonials of desperate people who found sharing pain at these workshops brought an intensity of love and care, courage and honesty that will enable them to live better until they die. For good measure, there's a full- page picture of Kubler-Ross tenderly showering love on the last moments of a wounded bird who flew into the conference-room window.
Jean Cameron's For All That Has Been, Time to Live and Time to Die (Macmillan, $9.50) is as different from Kubler-Ross's book as a cool shower is from a California hot tub. This slim volume is one woman's account of coming to grips with the progression of the cancer that was rapidly spreading throughout her body, told simply and unemotionally and devoid of the jargon of thanatology. In its quiet way it is as powerful as the Brompton cocktails laced with heroin that she had eventually to swallow to dull the pain of the disease making its inexorable way through her body.
There is special irony in the fact that Cameron was a Canadian hospital worker counseling dying patients and their families when she discovered her own malignancy. She carried on with her work as long as possible, eventually even by telephone from her bed. "There is nothing special about dying," she says. "It is the natural conclusion of our lives." There is, however, something special about this woman.
Anyone who has ever been involved in the terrible realities of a terminal diagnosis will recognize the truths she writes of and identify with her sensitive observations. "Cancer is the leprosy of our time," she says and you see it in the gradual withdrawal by doctors who prefer to treat patients who will get well, the separation of the sufferer from the world of the healthy which, consciously or unconsciously, maintains a comfortable distance. "In the midst of so many people, I have never felt so alone in my life," says a dying patient in this book.
A different sort of book has been written by Eugenia Price, who has already racked up 27 largely religious, nonfiction books. This one is called Getting Through the Night: Finding Your Way After the Loss of a Loved One (Dial, $6.95) and the answer to grief you will find here is God.
"God is understanding and now so is your loved one," advises Price, who tells us furthermore that the departed is now releasing new love from beyond our world's limits. Personally I always stop listening when I hear "loved one," but C.S. Lewis, quoted in this book, has a less arbitrary reason for ignoring this kind of help. "Talk to me about the truth of religion," he says, "and I'll listen gladly. . . . But don't come talking to me abut the consolations of religion or I shall suspect you don't understand."
A Land Beyond Tears: The Liberating Approach to Death and Dying, by Barry and Suzi Kaufman (Doubleday, $13.95) reads more like a bad novel than a tract on grief. Characters in this book "quip" and are giving to running on the beach in the rain. Its also features one of the most unlikely 17-year- olds you'll ever encounter. His mother is dying and he is working it through with somebody called Bears who apparently is the author. "Can we talk?" people inquire in this book and then proceed to show others the light. "Sammy, what does the word 'pain' mean?" asks Bears on page 99. That should tell you enough.