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BOOK REVIEW

'Jane Brody's Guide to the Great Beyond' by Jane Brody

The personal health columnist offers insights and advice -- often with a light touch of humor -- on coping with the issues surrounding the end of life.

February 21, 2009|David Kessler

Jane Brody, well-known New York Times health columnist, has written a number of bestselling books on various aspects of healthcare. Now, after covering nutrition, eating right, allergies, colds and flu, alternative and personal health, she could easily have tackled related topics such as the latest health craze, scare or celebrity disease. But instead of more of the same, in "Jane Brody's Guide to the Great Beyond," she dares to go where few writers who are focused on staying healthy have gone before: the topic of Death.

I've written extensively about death and dying, and I'll bet someone in Brody's world told her, "Don't go there. People don't want to read about the end of life. Give them more on health." Brody deserves high praise for taking on a subject that most would rather avoid.

She organizes her book into 18 chapters, including "Uncertain Future," "Living Well to the End," "Hospice and Palliative Care," "Spiritual Care," "What to Say," "Grief" and "Lasting Legacies." Basically this book will guide you from diagnosis to grief. As the author writes in the epilogue: "From the Start Consider the Finish." Brody puts the reader at ease by saying right up front, "Don't be afraid to face the inevitable, which I hope will be as distant from the present as possible."

One has to love a book on death that says hopefully, "You've got time," as the author brings a unique sense of balance to the writing and blends two unexpected ingredients: loss and humor. She presents cartoons that offer us a good chuckle about the topics, a wonderful technique for disarming the reader with a cartoon every chapter or so. One would not expect to find a book about death with a laugh every few pages, but Brody knows we need it, and she supplies the humor. Still, she never goes so far as to be irreverent. She also asks pertinent questions and provides checklists of things that patients and family members may want to ask, following through on her promise to make this book practical.

Brody has had many personal experiences with loss and could have written this book from only her own life. Instead, she tells a story, perhaps about a fascinating friend, and then turns to an extensive set of resources (I even found my work there, as well as one of the books I coauthored with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross) for additional information. Then, Brody neatly gives us her personal take on the situation.

Brody tells the truth, even when we don't want to hear or believe it. For example, most people imagine a movie version of CPR: Someone goes into respiratory failure and then, in a few minutes, they're back, feeling and looking good. But that's not reality. "The real life facts, however, are quite different," Brody explains. "Fewer than one in one hundred terminally ill patients given CPR recover and half of those who survive do so with profound brain damage. More than 99 percent end up as corpses with broken ribs."

It's a harsh reality, but that's the reality.

Her chapter on funerals is helpful and detailed, but for me, it appears too early in the book. I understand that Brody is encouraging us to plan ahead, but she offers funeral information before we have dealt with many other chapters leading up to death. It's hard to know if she has done this purposefully to demonstrate that if we can get through our discomfort, maybe we can look into funeral costs ahead of time, in our rational moments versus when a loved one is dying.

In the medical world today, an often overlooked resource is a hospital's ethics committee, whose purpose, Brody writes, is to "improve patient care by helping to identify, analyze, and resolve ethical dilemmas facing physicians and families." This extremely helpful resource, new to many, will give guidance to anyone facing hard medical choices. Most people don't connect the dots between the end of life and getting recommendations from an ethics committee. But for anyone who ends up among the myriad medical rocks and hard places, Brody guides us to the right place, directly and simply.

As Brody offers readers sprinkles of her own life experiences as well as those of her friends and experts, she leaves us with a message of empowerment that urges us all to not just think of taking charge of our health but also of our deaths. It is rare to find a book as comprehensive and easy to read as "Jane Brody's Guide to the Great Beyond." She truly has gone beyond what you would expect -- and need to find -- in a book on the end of life.

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David Kessler is the author of "The Needs of the Dying" and, with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, "Life Lessons" and "On Grief and Grieving."

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