My Fascination with Detractors

As I was setting up my display table for a book reading at Crane’s Mill Retirement Community, a woman hurried over to point to the subtitle of my book and say, “Why would anyone want to know what other people said at the end?” As I answered, I had the feeling that no answer would do, because after I did so, she retorted, disappointment marring her face, “That’s what I thought you would say,” and took off before I could refine the dialogue further. My answer had been, “As we hear what people say at such a poignant and intimate time, we can gain some insight as to what is important and meaningful to ourselves, and ponder how we want to spend the rest of our own lives.”

I wonder what she was after, and why she was so unsatisfied by my answer. Shall we speculate? (I say “we” because you can respond in the comments section after this post.) If she had lingered longer, perhaps our dialogue would have gone like this:

Me: What do you wish I had said?

Her: Well I’m not sure, but that is the expected answer.

Me: (Nodding in agreement) Uh-huh. A canned answer.

Her: (Flustered) Well no it’s you see it’s just like wanting to know what is going through a prisoner’s mind before they get executed.

Me: What would be scary about finding out?

Her: Oh I don’t know about scary. Some things are better left to the imagination.

Me: My curiosity does get the better of me sometimes.

Her: I suppose there’s no harm in that. But why about such a….such a (look of distaste on her face) subject.

Me: I guess finding out what people think towards the end makes you uneasy. Maybe for you it’s not like what people say who are about to start a new job or how are about to retire or who are trying something else that’s new for the first time.

Her: Yes, those are different.

Me: (I keep quiet, wondering if I’ve struck gold.)

Her: This is too close to home. (She pauses and I refrain from any potential diversions from what she needs to articulate.) It’s private. We shouldn’t know about what other people say. It’s like, I don’t know, it’s like catching someone in their pajamas. Like you first said, it’s a very personal time.

Me: When someone is dying, or looking back on their life as a whole, it can be very intimate. And when we hear about these conversations, we can feel very vulnerable and unprotected. Perhaps you have lost a loved one recently. I hope, though, that in the spirit that I reveal these encounters, that readers will feel accompanied and understood rather than intruded upon.

Her: (She nods and thanks me, leaving me wondering what even deeper layer would evolve if we were to speak at a future time. Had she lost someone recently? Had that person not talked with her towards the end and left her feeling alienated? Had she herself not broached important but scary subjects and regrets not having done so while she still had the chance? Perhaps she did not like my initial answer because it reminded her that she failed to make use of that intimate and irretrievable time.)


You: (If that woman had engaged in a dialogue with you about her repugnance at finding out what other people say at the end, what other direction might it have gone?)

9 thoughts on “My Fascination with Detractors

  1. Consuelo M Beck-Sague, MD says:

    This is something that I’ve sort of felt (not in a detracting sort of way… like… what’s up with THAT?) more like adding some nuance and perspective about the tacit assumption that what people say when they are dying is the “real” meaning of their lives. You do not, of course. But many others do, and assume that it’s what your book suggests. That of course, tends to trivialize many of the things that really ARE part of the “real” just as much as their dying words. I draw the parallel to the ancient Roman practice of torturing a prisoner to death because the thought was that right before he died, what would come out of his mouth was “the truth”. Well… yes and no. It’s A truth. It saddens and frustrates me when I hear relatives report (brag??) that a great physician or researcher, during her/his last hours or days, “realized” that having saved thousands of lives was not as “important” as having spent more time with the family, blah, blah, “nobody regrets not having written up another landmark study in their deathbed”. First of all: common misconception. MANY people (if they are not having “the truth” tortured out of them) will express satisfaction and gratitude for the little they did, regret for not having done more for the world, and/or even express totally “crazy” (to me) regrets (for not having tidied up their house, put their “affairs in order”, or even erased their online search history:D HA!!!). And (here’s a little antiretroviral therapy tale!): many people who think they are dying of AIDS say a lot of intense heartfelt stuff trivializing their past, things they’ve felt and done, etc. Then they respond to the antiretrovirals. And… well, it’s not like they are exactly the people they said they had become “as they lay dying”!!


  2. This reminds me of a recent article by Meghan Daum in the NY Times Sunday Review called “I Nearly Died. So What?” One thought-provoking quote is, “I also knew myself well enough to suspect that after a few months of smelling the metaphorical flowers, I’d probably go back to being the whiny ingrate I was before.” The link to the whole article is,


  3. L.W. says:

    Thanks for the link to the NYTimes article + many comments by NYT readers. I had missed the article and plan to read every comment….can’t think of a more interesting subject.
    Keep up the good work!


  4. cyndikerrigan says:

    Privacy and protecting rights to it matters. We assume your stories come with permission or the names are fictional, etc.. She did not view death as a new phase of our Soul’s journey but as the end of all experience. The Caterpillar/Butterfly metaphor is all you need to respond with:)

    Sent from my iPhone


    • I hope this is the beginning of a fruitful dialogue. (Your tone suggests that you yourself are a detractor.) I assure you, all the names in my book are fictional, as well as other possibly identifying characteristics. God forbid that my writing would cause distress ( the survivors first and foremost) rather than contribute to spiritual well-being. I assume your comment about how the lady at the book event viewed death is what you are referring to next. But please explain: aren’t the ideas of “the end of all experience” and the caterpillar/butterfly metaphor opposites?

      Now a separate issue: I do not like to respond to patients, etc. with well-known metaphors such as the caterpillar/butterfly one because a chaplain’s job is to help patients articulate what THEY think. Also, a cliche like that may trivialize or inhibit the patient/family/friend from getting in touch with their own beliefs and expressing them to themselves and possibly to me.


  5. I myself wrote a separate post in response to that article: Perhaps you will care to comment on that, or on the comments you are reading in the NY Times article.


  6. Consuelo M Beck-Sague, MD says:

    That was one of my (many) favorite offbeat compassion pieces. But again… what’s up with the detracting? OMG, even when you DO go back to being a whiny brat after your near-death experience, the fact is that death… when it’s not just “near”… is a mystery and it is silly to pretend that it is not.


  7. I, rather like you, Karen, would have been startled and puzzled by your interlocutor’s reaction. It got me to thinking about taboos. Some people seem to be so afraid of death (not my approach) that they would like to ban all talk of it. Over here, anyway, we used to find that sex and money were taboo subjects. I’m not so sure about sex but money seems to be discussed pretty freely these days. And why not? Death and people’s experiences of it should definitely be ‘out there in the arena’, in my book. A fascinating subject, and one you write about so well.


  8. I do hope that my blog and book continue to be a modest part of the death awareness movement to open the crack of death’s door a little wider well in advance of our being right at the entrance.


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