Q and A with Laura Pritchett about her new book, Making Friends with Death
Updated: Nov 7, 2018
1. Tell us a little about Making Friends with Death: A Field Guide for Your Impending Last Breath.
This book is simply a how-to/guide book on how to die well (or at least try!). I wanted it to be funny (because difficult conversations could always use a bit of humor). I wanted to look at all the uncertainty that precedes this certain final act. Most of all, I wanted it to be a mix of practical how-to advice and lists and wisdoms and research, all in one spot—so that basically, if you do the activities in the book, and handed it to someone, they’d have a pretty darn good idea of what you want. And I mean this practically (the technical and medical stuff); logistically (the type of ceremony, what should be done with your body), and heart-stuff (who you were as a person, what you stood for, what you’re most proud of), and everything in between.
2. What inspired you to write this book, which I'd describe as a guide to preparing for a good death?
Two things happened at once: One, I was helping friends and family die, and what I witnessed was pretty lousy. I’m just being honest—but man, they were bitter affairs, with families torn apart and the dying person suffering in all sorts of ways. On top of that, I was in a health care crisis of my own. I was in extreme pain all the time, the doctors couldn’t figure it out, and then at one point, it ceased to matter. It just felt like I was going to die. And I didn’t have any good examples of what a good death looked like. I didn’t know what was wrong with me—and wouldn’t for several years—but I kept thinking ut-oh, I better get ready here. Of course, I didn’t want to die. I had young children, a writing career that was just taking off, a good life. I found myself suddenly seeking some wisdoms, and fast. But there was no help. At least, not that I could find that were really practical and applicable.
That whole mess is better now, but one thing it taught me was this: It’s absolutely contingent upon us to prepare while we are healthy and calm. That way, when the shit hits the fan, we are better prepared to work with it all—and to have a good death.
3. How do Americans’ views and feelings about death differ from people’s in other countries?
We might win the award for being the most avoidant, pro-medicalized, least-accepting culture I discovered. Let me give one example that really struck me. One day, I was at a café doing research for this book in New Zealand, where I happened to be for a writing residency. There I was, planning to read articles on the American health care system, and how it had changed over the years, but I came across an article about the New Zealand take on it all, particularly on the lack of organ transplants. This country has one of the lowest organ donation rates in the world. I thought, upon glancing at the headline, that perhaps it’s just that the average Kiwi doesn’t want to donate organs. I mean, what a bunch of meanies!
But no. That was not it at all. Fifty percent of Kiwis with a driver’s license have identified themselves as donors, which is about on par with America. There’s no difference in people’s willingness to give of their bodies.
The difference, I came to discover, is that Kiwis believe that people should probably die. As a culture, Kiwis are more reluctant to use their medicine to keep people alive. It is that basic, that simple. When a person has been in a traumatic accident, for example, and is brought into the emergency room, the relatives often choose to let him or her die, particularly if quality of life after looks dim.
So I dug further. Why this cultural difference? After all, the two cultures don’t seem that far apart, right? According to the Health Board Director of New Zealand at that time, Dr. Shaw, it has to do with a “deeply ingrained culture where we don’t want to prolong the death of our loved ones. . . .We are a practical and pragmatic people; that is our culture and the way we approach death and dying, and I think that is a good thing.”
I was stunned at this basic but hard truth being so publicly stated. My first thought was, damn, this guy has balls. No American health board director could say such a thing—they’d be accused immediately of heartlessness, just as I was when I suggested that my father, who had suffered from Alzheimer’s for 14 years, and who I loved very much, be allowed to die instead of being given antibiotics when he got pneumonia. (I did not have medical proxy and so I lost that battle, and he went into a long and steady and clearly painful decline).
I have great respect for the people of New Zealand, and a great sadness toward the culture and medical system that encouraged my father suffer so. Which is one reason I wrote the book!
4. What sort of reactions have you received from your longtime readers (who know you primarily as a novelist and essayist) and new readers?
Oh, my fans are just the most amazing people. Right? I mean, the true fans really stick with you, even when you veer into new territory. And it’s still me—I’m a very issue-driven writer, and each of my books tackles some issue—this one is just nonfiction. And it’s still my voice. My writing. They’ve been very supportive and I love love love them. Yay for readers, and bookstore owners, and librarians, and reviewers, and folks like you who encourage such community!
5. What was one fact or concept you learned while working on this book that has stayed with you more than other things you've learned?
Develop a death mantra! Totally easy, totally fun, totally helpful during moments of crisis.
Also: “Use death as your advisor.” Keeping death on the mind changed me the most; I made some pretty big life decisions based on the fact that I was contemplating my death.
6. What are you working on now?
A play! My very first. It’s called Dirt: A Terra Nova Expedition, and it’s about climate change, soil science, nematodes, bacteria, the awesome six inches of stuff that saves us from oblivion. Plus, there’s a love story and a gun and death and drama!
Thank you as ever, Christine Sneed, for doing this blog and for fostering community among readers and writers.
Laura Pritchett is a mere mortal and also the author of nine books. She began her writing journey with the short story collection Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, which won the PEN USA Award for Fiction and the Milkweed National Fiction Prize. This was followed by the novels Sky Bridge, Stars Go Blue, and Red Lightning, and The Blue Hour, which garnered other writing awards. She’s also editor of three anthologies: Pulse of the River, Home Land, and Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers. She also has two nonfiction books: Great Colorado Bear Stories and Making Friends with Death. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, O Magazine, Salon, High Country News, The Sun, The Pinch, and others. She holds a PhD from Purdue University and teaches around the country. More at www.laurapritchett.com. And hurrah, she finally knows what her last words will be.