Bearing Witness to Someone Letting Go of Life

This past February, New Village Press published “Judith Letting Go: Six Months in the World’s Smallest Death Cafe,” a poignant and profound book about the most human experience of dying. Written by former publisher and editor of Mother Jones Mark Dowie, who has written several books on conservation and more than 200 investigative magazine articles, his account of conversations with a woman who became a good friend over the course of six months is a must read for anyone working in the aging sector.

The day before Judith Tannenbaum died, I asked her if one day I could write about our friendship … for publication. Without hesitation, she said yes. Then I asked if there was anything we had said or written to each other that she would like me to leave out. I was surprised, but pleased, when she said no. So, except for what I might have forgotten, it’s all here.

Below is a shortened introduction to the book.

For the entire six months I spent discovering her, Judith Tannenbaum and I both knew she was going to die. In fact, for most of that time we knew the exact hour she would go, sometime between 11:00 a.m. and noon on December 5, 2019, which she did. Although we knew each other only for those few short months, I will regard her for the rest of my days as a lifelong friend.

We talked about many things during those months, but the rapidly approaching moment of Judith’s death came to inform and shape our entire conversation. Death was, as she put it, “the under-current and the overstory” of our relationship … one of the deepest, most profound, and fulfilling of my life. I’m not a great conversationalist. But Judith was.

While imminent death was really the only constant factor in our friendship, at no time during the months I knew her could she have been described as “dying.” In fact, she didn’t want to be described that way. Until her very last day, she wished to remain the vibrant, energetic, humorous, and life-loving woman she’d been for most of her life, and to be a lyrical poet, who wrote and revised her verse until the end, rarely mentioning her affliction to anyone, and only abstrusely in her poetry.

Judith hid excruciating pain from all but her family and intimate friends, and constantly sought ways to make life worth living in the face of agony, and then of death. To me, she was a paragon of courage, who, as her final day approached, reminded us all many times that she was not dying… “just letting go.”

So, as a tribute to her life, and her courage, our story should not be read as yet another book about dying, or death and dying. It’s about letting go of everything that matters to the living—attachments, hopes, plans, fears, and expectations—in preparation for the ending that awaits us all. And it’s about how one person can expand another’s compassion for anyone in pain.

The following is an excerpt further into the book:

And I began to wonder whether or not, at some level, we all seek to influence, if not control, our deaths. And if we wish for a perfect ending, why aren’t we more proactive about arranging it? And why do we so rarely tell our closest friends and family how we’d like to die? We’ll tell them what we would like them to do with our remains, but not how we choose to spend our closing moments. I suppose this is what Death Cafés are for. Although I am sorry now and surprised, in retrospect, that the question never came up in our tiny Café. But this one did: What does future mean when you no longer have one? I’ve forgotten who raised his name first, Judith or I, but Paul Kalanithi immediately came to mind.

A professionally agile young neurosurgeon with a family and promising career at Stanford, Kalanithi was diagnosed with lung cancer at thirty-six, and died a few months later, to the end full of promise and purpose. He died fighting death, in the middle of writing When Breath Becomes Air, a brilliant, poignant, and deservedly best-selling mémoire de mourir, finished after he’d gone by his widow, Lucy, while raising their daughter, Cady, born while her father was consciously letting go.

‘It’s about how one person can expand another’s compassion for anyone in pain.’

Judith Letting Go Book Cover

While the book is about life, love, medicine, marriage, and many other things, the central theme is about losing a future. At least that is what came through to both Judith and me as we read the memoir in tandem.

Although he was trained to combat death, Kalanithi “acted not as death’s enemy,” he wrote, “but as its ambassador” (Paul Kalanithi, "When Breath Becomes Air" [New York: Random House, 2016], p. 77). He was what is known on some hospital wards as a “death talker.” I know the term because my stepmother was one. When a patient on the cancer ward where she worked at Toronto General started talking about death, fellow health-care workers, particularly surgeons who seemed to be particularly uncomfortable around the subject, would ask “Nurse Barbara” to come to their patients’ bedsides and have a chat with them. Barbara always knew what the chat was to be about, she being the only person on her ward who would talk death with patients or their families. She listened attentively, absorbing every fear they had in calm silence. And she would pray with them if they asked her to, and cry when they did. Something about mutual crying makes the subject of death easier for some people to approach and its darkness to endure.

Judith and I cried together only once. It started without prompt or evident reason, and in complete silence one afternoon after two or three hours of not so light conversation. Judith, resplendent in her pajamas, brought two steaming mugs of tea from the kitchen and sat down in front of me. As we sipped our tea, we just looked at each other, and in less than a minute we were both crying. We never took the time to trace the source of our tears—another item saved for a Café conversation that didn’t happen. But I now believe I understand what was happening, at least to me. I was grieving. Except for the last day of her life, which I’ll recount later, and one or two more after she left, I have barely grieved for Judith. I miss her terribly at times, and will never forget her, but that paralyzing, soul-crushing agony described so graphically by Joan Didion after her sudden loss of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and soon after that of their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne (Joan Didion, "The Year of Magical Thinking" [New York: Knopf, 2005] and "Blue Nights" [New York: Knopf, 2011]), and by so many other powerful writers, appears to have passed before Judith died, but only for me. I know that Sara; Shandy, Judith’s son-in-law; Kate; Debbie, Judith’s sister; her niece, Emma; and others who loved her deeply are feeling it still. All I can remember of it now is how strange it was to look at a living person and feel something I didn’t expect to feel until she was gone.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/Barbora Polivkova