The best books about opening to death to live your most joyful life

Barbara Coombs Lee Author Of Finish Strong: Putting Your Priorities First at Life's End
By Barbara Coombs Lee

Who am I?

I first started tending patients at age 15, as a candy striper at St. Joseph Hospital. That was a long time ago, and since then I’ve learned much at patients’ bedsides, in Congress, statehouses and courtrooms. Through sequential careers in nursing, medicine, law, and advocacy, I learned that end-of-life experiences have the most to teach us about being truly present to our lives, about learning to love well and growing in wisdom. Personal autonomy, individual empowerment, and guided planning are all key to moving past our fear of death. In the end, as Seneca observed, “The art of living well and dying well are one.”


I wrote...

Finish Strong: Putting Your Priorities First at Life's End

By Barbara Coombs Lee,

Book cover of Finish Strong: Putting Your Priorities First at Life's End

What is my book about?

It’s hard to talk about death in America. But even though the topic has been taboo, life’s end is an eventual reality for us all. So why not shape it to your values? Written with candor and clarity by a nurse, physician assistant, and attorney who became a leading advocate for end-of-life options, this book will guide you through: finding a partner-doctor to honor your values and beliefs; identifying and documenting what matters most; having meaningful conversations with doctors and family about expectations and wishes; staying off the “overtreatment conveyor belt”; understanding “slow medicine”; navigating home hospice; using recommended free resources and tools to take charge.

Finish Strong is for those of us who want an end-of-life experience to match the life we’ve enjoyed.

The books I picked & why

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A Midwife through the Dying Process

By Timothy E. Quill,

Book cover of A Midwife through the Dying Process: Stories of Healing and Hard Choices at the End of Life

Why this book?

In 1991 I was a young lawyer, just learning about the death-with-dignity movement. I had practiced nursing and medicine for 20 years and tended many dying patients. But I’d thought little about patient choice and empowerment at the end of life. In my ignorance, I turned to Dr. Timothy Quill and was struck by his clarity and courage. Tim was the first mainstream physician to be candid and compassionate about patients’ legitimate wish to advance the time of death if cancer or other illness traps them in “their worst nightmare.” This book, and his earlier Death with Dignity, are the definitive primers into the hows and whys of medical aid in dying, a practice that is authorized in many states now, but was a felony everywhere when Dr. Quill brought it to light.


Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying

By Stephen Levine, Ondrea Levine,

Book cover of Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying

Why this book?

Of all the writers on death and dying, Stephen Levine and his good friend Ram Dass do more than any others to help readers confront mortality and learn from it. I pick up this book when I need Levine’s kind guidance to quiet the universal terror when we think about dying, and remind me to extract all the love, sweetness, and beauty I can from each day on earth. Levine brings practical and spiritual tools to people approaching the end of their lives, and to all of us who consider it. His books are a real-world path to the ancient biblical questions, “Death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory?”


A Life Complete

By Sallirae Henderson,

Book cover of A Life Complete: Emotional and Spiritual Growth for Midlife and Beyond

Why this book?

As Sallirae ministered to the elderly in an upscale continuing care community, she wondered how some residents aged into a graceful presence that attracted people to them, while others drove people away with their grumpy discontentedness. Some remained curious and engaged in life, but others shrank in interest and spirit. She studied her subjects and their histories closely and rewarded readers with practical tips to adopt in middle age to prevent us from poisoning our later years with grief and regret. What exactly can we do now to live our old age in joy and contentment? Sallirae died in 2007 at age 66, too young to reap the wise and graceful old age she bequeathed to the rest of us. I hold her memory in gratitude as I myself grow old. 


When My Time Comes

By Diane Rehm,

Book cover of When My Time Comes: Conversations about Whether Those Who Are Dying Should Have the Right to Determine When Life Should End

Why this book?

Diane is the curious and savvy public radio journalist who educated even as she entertained so many Americans, presenting conversations on every aspect of life in arts, science, and politics. I came to know Diane when I appeared on her show and was transfixed by watching her expertly navigate advanced broadcast technology even as she sized up her guests, crafted questions from her own astute observations, and coaxed her guests to reveal things they perhaps did not intend. In this book, she shares her most personal side as she considers options at the end of a life well-lived. Her wisdom is gleaned from personal history plus thousands of interviews, and she generously shares it with us. 


Last Wish

By Betty Rollin,

Book cover of Last Wish

Why this book?

Betty Rollin is best known as the award-winning national correspondent for NBC. Writing about her personal life, she sure knows how to tell a story. Long before any state recognized a legal option for assisted dying, a few brave people navigated the risks of helping a loved one exit life on their own terms. Betty and her husband, Ed, were two such people, and they were especially courageous in publicizing what they did. Last Wish was a bestseller when it came out in 1985 and again in 1999. It became an ABC TV movie in 1992 starring Patty Duke and Maureen Stapleton. Both the story and the storytelling, are captivating. Betty’s mom got the peaceful death she desired, and we got a wonderful, even humorous story of love, loyalty, and international daring. 


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