Dear Life A Doctors Story of Love and Loss Canongate January 30th 2020
As a specialist in palliative medicine, Dr Rachel Clarke chooses to inhabit a place many people would find too tragic to contemplate. Every day she tries to bring care and comfort to those reaching the end of their lives and to help make dying more bearable.
Rachel’s training was put to the test in 2017 when her beloved GP father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She learned that nothing – even the best palliative care – can sugar-coat the pain of losing someone you love.
And yet, she argues, in a hospice there is more of what matters in life – more love, more strength, more kindness, more joy, more tenderness, more grace, more compassion – than you could ever imagine. For if there is a difference between people who know they are dying and the rest of us, it is simply this: that the terminally ill know their time is running out, while we live as though we have all the time in the world.
Dear Life is a book about the vital importance of human connection, by the doctor we would all want by our sides at a time of crisis. It is a love letter – to a father, to a profession, to life itself.
Death, the one thing you can be absolutely certain we will all experience at some point in our lives. When it will happen could be something that is totally out of our control, but what if we were to develop cancer, or another life limiting disease, how do would we cope with the knowledge that death could be sooner rather than later?
Are we afraid or would it be a welcome release from a life of anguish and pain and what about those that surround us or treat us?
Dr Rachel Clarke’s Dear Life didn’t try to answer any of those questions but instead she wrote what I can only describe as an insightful, beautiful and touching discussion on the dying process.
She had a real knack for getting to the very heart of the process, irrespective if it was from the point of view of doctor, patient, or loved one. As a doctor, were they really seeing the patient as a person, or were they a vessel that carried a disease, that required endless gruelling treatments to dissipate and cure it? Did they consider the wishes of a patient, who wanted no more, or even one who wished to carry on regardless.
And what of the patient? Clarke confronted the fear, the fear of the unknown, of leaving those we love behind but also the joy and closeness we can get from those around us, of enjoying the present for what it is.
She gave an eye opening portrayal of her role and those of other medical professionals in the Hopsice setting. It was a place not just for the dying but also for the living whose death may be some time off but needed that extra little care and support. It wasn’t a place of doom and gloom as laughter and happiness sat alongside the grief and the loss.
What stood out more than anything was the passion of the doctors, the nurses, the carers, the myriad of support staff who took it upon themselves to give the dying those final special moments.
The most poignant aspect of Dear Life was Clarke’s own relationship with death, not just as a doctor but on a personal level as she dealt with the diagnosis, treatment and death of her father.
You could sense her conflict as she balanced her role as daughter, carer and that of medical professional. Which conversation, which encounter required which hat, was a never ending conundrum that dominated before finally the role of loving, caring daughter took over.
You knew that it taught her so much, that for all its sorrow it had enhanced her professional role, gave her insight and a deeper appreciation for the journey that both patient, and loved ones travelled.
Did I find it gloomy, depressing to read? Most definitely not, it was so wonderfully written, sincere, intelligent, and opened my eyes to a world that I have already encountered but know will touch me in some way in the future.
Never judgemental, nor preachy I urge everyone to read Dear Life. It will, as has for me, change your whole outlook on the prospect of your own death but also for those around us.
I would like to thank Emily Moran at Little Brown for sending a copy of Dear Life to read and review.
About the author
Before going to medical school, Dr Rachel Clarke was a television journalist and documentary maker. She now specialises in palliative medicine, caring deeply about helping patients live the end of their lives as fully and richly as possible – and in the power of human stories to build empathy and inspire change.
Her first book, the Sunday Times bestselling Your Life in My Hands, reveals what life is like for a junior doctor on the NHS frontline.
Her memoir Dear Life (Little, Brown, Jan 2020) is based on her work in a hospice. It explores love, loss, grief, dying and what really matters at the end of life.
Rachel has written for the Guardian, Sunday Times, New York Times, Independent, Telegraph, Prospect, BMJ, NEJM and Lancet. She has appeared on BBC Radio 4 Today, BBC Newsnight, Channel 4 News, BBC Woman’s Hour, ITV News and Sky News, among others.
She lives in Oxfordshire with her husband and two children.