Quill and Quire

Canada's magazine of book news and reviews

Timely Death: Considering Our Last Rights

by Anne Mullens

Life’s Losses: Living Through Grief, Bereavement and Sudden Change

by Betty Jane Wylie

In her preface to Timely Death, B.C. journalist Anne Mullens, who covered the Sue Rodriguez story for The Vancouver Sun and later The Toronto Star, writes of how her attitude towards death changed during the course of writing this book on the right-to-die issue. Before, she says she felt superstitious about studying death too closely, as if doing so would “invite it into my sphere.” After: “I have lost my fear of death,” she writes, “but not my respect for it… I am cognizant of not leaving things unsaid, of mending my bridges, of keeping my psychological space clean. I say ‘I love you’ frequently to the important people in my life….”

Many readers will nod their heads in recognition. I confess to a similar superstitiousness about reading and reviewing books about death, but I felt the same way after reading this one as the author did after writing it. Timely Death is a sensitive, well-organized, and highly readable treatment of the issues of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia. Though clearly in favour of legalization, Mullens presents opposing points of view honestly and fairly, like a philosopher rather than an activist.

Mullens doesn’t just look at the pros and cons of allowing assisted death. She also looks in detail at the role played by palliative care, advance directives (living wills), the problem of incompetency, and the issues of withholding or withdrawing treatment.

There are some omissions. Despite her balanced approach, Mullens fails to mention that some of the characters on the pro side have been highly controversial, even within their own ranks. Ann Humphry, second wife of Derek Humphry (founder of the Hemlock Society and author of the bestselling suicide manual Final Exit, which Mullens mentions several times), claimed the latter deserted her and was trying to kill her after she was diagnosed with cancer. Heart transplant pioneer Christian Barnard (whom Mullens doesn’t mention) has been reported to have espoused letting physicians, rather than terminally ill patients themselves, decide when further suffering would be meaningless. But these are relatively minor flaws, and with Timely Death Mullens has successfully synthesized the rhetoric on both sides into a measured but convincing plea for acknowledgment of the right to die.

Journalist Betty Jane Wylie (author of Beginnings: A Book for Widows, Successfully Single, and Everywoman’s Money Book) has been a widow for 20 years. Unfortunately, she relies rather too heavily on this qualification, her research into how people cope with grief being entirely anecdotal. Though Life’s Losses purports to treat loss in general as well as death in particular with chapter headings like “Loss of Self-Image” and “Loss of Neighbourhood,” Wylie only deals with such losses as resulting from the death of a loved one. That is, losing a husband might also mean having to give up one’s house or moving to another town to be close to remaining loved ones. The author does devote a chapter to divorce, observing that, in some ways, the grieving process is harder for divorced people than for the bereaved.

While Life’s Losses reveals Wylie to be a wise, gentle person whose friendship would benefit anyone dealing with loss, the book fails on several levels. As a grieving person myself, I found little comfort reading through her rambling generalizations about how people cope with death and grief or endless statements of the obvious (“Once a person has gathered strength within and no longer feels fearful or unable to cope, the effects of Life Events are more easily dealt with”). And, while the book is obviously intended to be more like a letter of condolence than a treatise on grief, those who would like to follow up with further reading might appreciate some footnotes to identify the many apparently random quotations.