The first thing that struck me hard about this book was its title. It’s a matter of death and life. This is a very clever take on the usual saying – it’s a matter of life and death- which we commonly say.
To those don’t know, Irvin Yalom is one of the world’s most renowned psychiatrist and psychotherapist. He’s very well known for his work with anxiety and grief and his books are read world over. I was introduced to the works of Yalom when I had started my education and career in psychotherapy. There is just something about Yalom that we cannot resonate with- whether its his calm demeanour, his wisdom, his empathy or just his presence in the room. That is how I feel about him when I am reading his books.
A Matter of Death and Life essentially covers the last few months of Yalom and his wife, Marilyn who’s been diagnosed with cancer. We are given an intimate insight into the conversations that were exchanged between the couple. Yalom acknowledges early on in the book that he and his wife accept they are the end of their lives, especially as most of their contemporaries have passed on. “We write to make sense of our existence, even as it sweeps, us into the darkest zones of physical decline, and death. This book is meant, first and foremost, to help us navigate the end of life.” (page xiii)
He goes on to say that no one is immune to pain and fear of oncoming death. Death is something which we will have to go through. We don’t talk much about it, and we stay away from conversations around death. We tend to focus on maintaining the quality of our lives.
What follows in the subsequent chapters are insights into the lives of Irvin and Marilyn. As we alternate between the two people’s insights, we get to see how they see themselves as an individual, as a friend, as a parent, and as a spouse. We get to see and feel like, through Marilyn, what it’s like to be diagnosed with cancer and then finding out that we have very little time to live. We get to experience the fear through the eyes of Irvin himself, who is worried about his life post the death of his wife. We also get to experience what it was like for the couple to live with each other, the space and the support they gave each other, what it was like to navigate through this all with their own children and grandchildren and with their circle of friends and colleagues at the academic institutions.
Even though we know Marilyn will die, it’s still is book that challenges us to confront the reality that one day we will all die. It asks us to think how we can live a more meaningful life of quality while acknowledging that one day we won’t be alive.
It’s indeed extremely sad to lose a loved one. Irvin losing his wife, reminded me of my own experience of losing my father. Grief hits us bad. The last few chapters of the book talks a lot about Yale’s own experience with the grief of losing his wife. His honesty is refreshing and it is something that makes him more human, for example, he admits to not visiting the grave of his wife whereas all his children have been multiple times.
He also spends some time sharing how life is like for him after the death of Marilyn– where he says he felt like he’s become a child all over again, where his children are taking care of him. It’s a sad reality but ultimately, Yalom tells us that when we confront death head on, we can and are able to live a life that’s full of quality and meaning.
Even though this book is about a death, and grief, it somehow doesn’t feel morbid or sad. It actually makes for an enlightening reading, and in fact gave me hope. There is so much love and serenity around the words of Yalom.
The more fully you live your life, the less tragic is your death.