Learning to live with death and dying

In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying, by Eve Joseph (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2014)

Joseph“I was a girl when my brother was killed,” Eve Joseph writes at the close of this multi-textured book. “In the silence that followed his death, grief took up residence in our house. His death led me to the dying, and death led me back to him” (p. 199).

During her adult years, Joseph worked as a hospice counselor, living in close contact with people as life ebbed away, observing with a poet’s sensitivity the physical, emotional, and inter-personal aspects of the experience that comes to all.

Joseph also read a wide range of literature about dying and death—clinical studies, personal narratives, religious and philosophical reflections, myth, poetry, and legend. She was also attentive to her own family systems, Judaism and the Salish First People of Vancouver Island.

In the Slender Margin is the culmination of this forty-year process of living with death. Joseph writes as a poet, “in short meditative chapters leavened wit insight, warmth, and occasional humor” that are connected with emotional rather than discursive logic.

Joseph describes what people believe, imagine, experience, and ritualize about living and dying, about the intertwining of the living and the dead, of animals and bees and the people who are dying or in death’s way. She neither discounts nor affirms; rather she accepts all of them as signs of the dynamic reality of human experience—experience in which dying and living are always present.

Many people in the western world are inclined to discount much of what Joseph describes, thinking of it as superstition or unscientific. The impact of Joseph’s sensitive description, however, is to soften this resistance so that fact-oriented westerners can be embraced by a wisdom that has long existed among the peoples of the world.

My academic approach to life and death was quickly overwhelmed by this narrative, and my personal grief two years after my wife’s death took control. I remember only a few of the facts and explanations Joseph recites, but find my grief softened and my spirit enlivened.

With her, I am ready to affirm that “The slender margin between the real and the unreal is the margin between factual truth and narrative truth. . .The factual truth is objective. The narrative truth opens the door to the mysterious” (p. 199).

With considerable firmness Joseph states that her purpose in writing this book was not the hope that it would be therapeutic, bringing her closer to her brother, although this it seems to have done. “I wrote as Joan Didion says, to find out what I was thinking. Along the way, I was surprised.”

She describes the book as a work of art that “lies somewhere between the corporeal and the spiritual: the sacred and the profane. I am closest to my mother and brother and innumerable others when I write about them.”

I, too, am a writer. Rather than poetry, my work has been academic prose. During the next two or three years, however, I want to write two monographs, one focusing on personal and family aspects of my life and the other on my work as theologian and religious historian.

Joseph’s distinction between factual truth and narrative truth will be an important guide as I choose memories that are important and then weave them into a narrative that hovers between the corporeal and the spiritual. I will write in order to understand what I think, and in the process, like Didion and Joseph, I hope to be surprised.

One Response to Learning to live with death and dying

  1. Elva Anson says:

    I am writing a memoir, Keith. I have just a few chapters left to write. I have been thinking about some of our talks while we were both in Sanger. We were reading books about neo-orthodoxy. I don’t remember their titles. I was interested in your blog about moving back to Indianapolis. The theme of my book is wondering about God. It has been an interesting experience.

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