Being Mortal - Book Review
Updated: Jan 5, 2022
There are few books that I would say one needs to read. If it is a question about how you want to live your life until the very end then this one is a must. Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, is an incredible read that provides both insights into the the 21st century world of medicine, as well as ignites personal reflections around what life and living is really about. As the San Francisco Chronicle stated, it is ”a needed call to action”.
Gawande’s book Being Mortal has come into my professional life at a time where being curious as a Registered Clinical Counsellor about one's life brings tremendous insight and meaning. Growing up in a family of medical professionals it wasn’t unusual for table talk to turn to topics of wellbeing and wellness, death and dying, and everything in between. I grew accustomed to hearing my parents discuss their values about life and death. For me talking about these “taboo” topics was normal.
Being the 4 year old at a nursing home was part of my childhood. As my father made his rounds, I’d run down the nursing home’s corridors visiting the nurses and my dear old friends. Til this day, I still remember the faint sour smells of my friends rooms, the machines they were hooked up to and the buttery bread I always managed to snag. This was what I knew - this was part of my life.
It hadn’t clued in until I started my first post-graduate job as a counsellor that not many people spent Sundays playing hide and seek with palliative care patients. My understanding and experience of life was different. Dialogues of death and dying was routine for me. As a Registered Clinical Counsellor, with a keen interest in working with those living with chronic illnesses, I can now see how my childhood experiences have helped me navigate such conversations with clients. And after reading Being Mortal I have a deeper understanding of the importance of these conversations.
In a time where medicine is often about prolonging and sustaining life, Gawande’s book is about how we ensure a life worth living all the way to the very end. Whether you or a loved one is living with a chronic illness, a life-threatening disease, or simply ageing, this book will impart you with valuable knowledge about aging, death, and the medical profession’s mishandling of both. Most importantly it will offer your alternate ways of thinking and being to live gracefully today til the very end.
Gawande gives insight into the education and knowledge of medical students and professionals, and where it falters. For instance, “in almost [no nursing home] does anyone sit down with you and try to figure out what living a life really means to you under the circumstances, let alone help you make a home where that life becomes possible" (pg. 76). Here he points out a gap in our medical system - where perhaps someone’s way of life is dismissed, as if after a certain point we don’t matter. This gap, however, is instrumental in helping people continue to live a life with meaning and purpose. And so by asking the following important questions we can help bridge this gap:
What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
What are your fears and what are your hopes?
What is important to them right now, and in the near future?
What are the trade-offs you’re willing to make a not willing to make?
What is the course of action that best serves this understanding?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, but the more we get curious and the deeper we go to answer them, the clearer we get about what is actually important to us. With clarity, we are more free to live. You do not need to be sick, dying or old to answer these questions. You only need to wish to lead a life full of meaning and purpose, whatever that may be for you.
Read more about my approach to Grief and Loss on my Grief Counselling page.
Gawande, A. (2014). Being mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company.