Learning the art of dying well

Professor taps non-fiction accounts of death and dying for lessons in life.

Michael Brown - 16 September 2016

Do we know how to die in the 21st century?

Maite Snauwaert, arts and humanities professor at Campus Saint-Jean, doesn't think so, but believes a growing legion of non-fiction writers who have tackled death in their work can help show us what it means to be at the end of one's life and to acknowledge it.

"While the population is growing older in Canada, and our lifespan is extended, most of the time the end of life is spent in the hospital, under the effect of drugs, removed from all the familiarity of our life," said Snauwaert, who received a five-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant worth $109,276 for this project. "Yet so much of this crucial episode, for the dying person as well as for her surviving entourage, requires something other than the sole medical expertise."

In her search for what it means to die, Snauwaert has discovered a growing body of non-fiction works by writers from France, England, Quebec, Canada and the United States who have been exposed to grief or facing the end of their own life, and have written about it.

"Despite their singular respective styles, they all share commonalities: they feel stuck and helpless before the brutal realization of their own mortality. They feel utterly unprepared. What's more, they feel socially unsupported."

Snauwaert says she feels the need to share this deeply affecting and intimate experience-not just to testify for it, but also to open a conversation about a topic that has become taboo in Western societies.

"I want to disrupt the social silence surrounding the bereaved and the sick," she said. "It is my ambition to show that the literary works of these writers not only restore words to the diverse experience of the ultimate stages of life, hence making them audible and significant, but also open a public space for this necessary exchange."

Snauwaert says these lessons are of the utmost importance because the human lifespan is expanding, yet what does it mean to live longer, if we cannot attach meaning and quality to it?

"If the end of life can be acknowledged as a moment of life in its own right, it can then become a significant episode for reflecting and making sense of one's life, as well as sharing and transmitting important lessons learned to younger ones," she said.

She says advocates for more hospice care argue that dying without prolonged medical interventions that slowly erase their consciousness allows people to fully live the last episode of their life, as a meaningful and important one.

"My overall hypothesis is that this final stage of life offers a very acute viewpoint on the meaning and conduct of life, on how life should be conducted-or should have been-and that we have a lot to learn from those who have reached this point."

In all, U of A-led research projects worth more than $3.4 million-including 20 Insight Grants to support the highest levels of research excellence, 12 Insight Development Grants designed to support research in the initial stages, a partnership development grant and a letter of intent for a second partnership grant-were funded as part of the federal government's continued investment in the search for solutions to today's most pressing social, cultural, technological, environmental and economic issues.