About Pat McNees
I worked as an editor in book publishing before becoming an independent writer and editor. As editor of a line of paperback books at Fawcett, I oversaw the editing of several anthologies and documentary histories, and edited some anthologies myself, including Contemporary Latin American Short Stories. But I later became (and still am) an independent writer-editor, which enabled me to spend the final months of my father's life helping to care for him.
My dad was relieved to be able to die at home, instead of in a nursing home. He and my mother were staying at my Aunt Gene's home in Los Angeles, near where he was being treated, and I had flown out there from Washington, DC, to help.
Never having been around someone who was dying, I didn't know what to expect or how I could help him, and the books I found in the library and bookstores in 1990 were not much help. The hospice workers who came to my aunt's home regularly were enormously helpful, both with practical advice and with emotional support -- especially when Dad was anxious, or Mom and I were arguing about whether Dad was taking too much medication to lessen his anxiety (Mom was worried he would become addicted--a common fear in this situation, which his doctor assured us was not a problem. She also didn't want to be accused of killing him!). I could have used a book like Dying: A Book of Comfort, to explain the many conflicting feelings we were all experiencing!
My experience helping Dad in his final months was surprisingly positive. And though Dad held no religious beliefs and specifically insisted that nobody preach over his body when he was buried, it was more of a spiritual experience than I expected, too. I had no way to realize how important it would be in my life that I had helped Dad as he left his.
The next year, when Barbara Greenman, an editor at the Literary Guild book club, asked me if I could put together an anthology that would help either those who were dying or those who were helping them through their final illness, I quickly agreed to do so. I knew there was a need for such a book, especially for non-church-goers like my parents and me. And I did it with people like my father in mind. How do you comfort someone who is dying and does not believe in God or heaven?
But we both quickly agreed that the anthology should cover all aspects of grief, from the moment we learn people are dying until after they are gone and their survivors are grieving their loss. We spent a year choosing the material for the anthology and clearing permissions.
The book had a wonderful start: the Literary Guild edition was beautiful and quickly won glowing praise -- first of all from Dame Cicely Saunders herself, who had developed the hospice concept. Then Warner Books brought out a paperback edition, which had the same content but was not as lovely a gift book as the Guild edition had been. When Warner let its paperback edition go out of print, I asked the Guild to do a special printing of its little hardcover edition, for the many people who kept asking how to buy copies. I am glad to report that the wonderful small gift book edition is now available again, chiefly through this website (the print-on-demand paperback sold online through Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble is not nearly so nice and it's heavier!). I developed the website to provide additional material and either practical information or links to places to find it:
On funerals, memorial services, alternatives to both, and the wonderful options for honoring a life;
On caregiving and survival (because many who face mortality do survive, and survival changes them, and those who care for the critically or chronically ill face burnout and other problems;
On coping with chronic, rare, and invisible diseases and disorders, for which both risk and fear of mortality and disability are often great;
On leaving behind a written or recorded legacy of your life--something to help people remember you.
And the list kept growing.
Since DYING was first published, I have written several books, including a history of the NIH Clinical Center, perhaps the largest, most important research hospital in the world. I've combined an interest in medical and health care writing with an interest in helping people write their life (or organizational) stories. My histories (based on interviews, not documents) include a history of the department of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Eventually I will get back to writing a collection of patient stories -- of medical mysteries, from the viewpoint of the patients and their families.
I live in Bethesda, Maryland, where I teach workshops ("My Life, One Story at a Time" at the Writer's Center and in Montgomery County libraries). One of the best ways to comfort those you leave behind when you die (or to help yourself when you lose your memory) is to write an honest account of what went on in your life and the life of your family. You don't have to die to share your story, and the process of writing in my students' experience is remarkably therapeutic -- indeed, life-affirming. In a way, we write to discover who we are. I greatly recommend it and have included on this website lists of (and links to) resources to help you.
Helping people write their life story can be satisfying in surprising ways. Think how much more attentive care your aging mother will get, for example, if you post a brief version of her life story on the door of her hospital room. You will also find links to memoirs by people who have written about their encounters with illness and other crises. Let me know if there are any I have missed and should look for.
-- Pat McNees
“Pat McNees is one of my favorite writers,” said Barbara Greenman, former executive editor of book development at the Literary Guild book club. “She put heart and soul into the project we did together, the anthology Dying: A Book of Comfort. Instead of using only her own experience helping her dying father, she researched the literature, found out (or intuited) what people facing a death or bereavement might need to read, and after finding an amazing amount of wise and wonderful material did a beautiful job shaping it into a gem of a book, which has helped many, many people. She was realistic about publishing realities, easy to work with, and knowledgeable and thorough about copyright and permissions (she teaches a course on the subject). Most important, she managed to make readers feel that dealing with a death could be a life-affirming experience. Over my 20 years here, Dying is the book I am most proud of publishing.”
About this book:
I was originally asked to do this book by Barbara Greenman, editor of Doubleday's Literary Guild book club. Her long-time friend was dying and she wanted to know how best to help--wanted something positive. My experience helping my father when he was dying from lung cancer had made me realize that there was little help available for people trying to do this on their own. Hospices are wonderful, in my personal experience, but they aren't there late at night when you're on your own and flying blind. So this project was a labor of love for both Barbara and me.
Nobody teaches us how to die, or how to help someone die; nor how to grieve, or how best to help the grieving. My emphasis in collecting material for this anthology was on the emotional, not the practical, aspects of death and grieving. I looked for selections that offer meaningful insights and experiences, comforting words and stories, some guidance, much reassurance.
This is not a how-to book, but I chose selections around several basic themes: the intensity with which life is experienced by people who are dying (and those who help them die), what it is like (emotionally) to die, how to help someone die, how to say good-bye,what to expect from grief, and how to console the bereaved. There are special sections on mourning the death of a parent, the death of a child, a death by suicide, or a violent, unexpected death. There are selections about near-death experiences, about life after death, and about life and death. There are prayers from many faiths as well as selections to comfort those with no religious faith. There are also selections suitable for reading at funerals and memorial services. All of the selections are short, because people who are grieving (including people who are dying) are often unable to concentrate on anything long.
This book was first published as a Literary Guild original, in an edition so lovely that both Barbara and the art director felt that of all the books they had worked on, this was the one they were proudest of. (You can't imagine how rare an experience this is for an author.) The Guild edition was not available in bookstores. Warner Books brought out a trade paperback edition, which was available in bookstores, and which adapted the original Guild design to a slightly larger format.
Frankly, although the book was fine in its paperback format, it wasn't as perfect a gift book, and as my Warner editor pointed out, Warner did not specialize in "back list" titles (those that sell quietly, year after year). When the Warner edition went out of print, the Guild agreed to print a special edition, because I was getting e-mails of frustration from people who were used to buying copies of the book to have on hand for when a friend experienced a death in the family. I am happy to report that the original Guild hardcover edition, with the lovely jacket (a soft yellow matte finish, with a small shining work of art, a bridge across water, center front), is now available again. The content is the same in both books. I have copies of both the paperback and the Guild hardcover for sale, but personally, I prefer the Guild edition.
The cover art is The White Bridge by John Henry Twachtman, courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Reviews and praise for Dying: A Book of Comfort,
"Although I’m not ready to admit it, my father is dying. As cancer takes over his body, we sit together – talking, enjoying the garden, and watching old movies. I’m trying to get a handle on the situation and how I feel about it, but my emotions are a tangled, jumbled mess. All at once I feel isolation, profound sadness, panic, anxiety, anger, frustration, helplessness, fatigue, and, ironically, occasional joy and humor.
"When I set out to review Dying: A Book of Comfort, I worried that I might be too close to the topic. But as I read passages in this anthology, my mixed feelings began to come into focus. I realized that perhaps I’m just the kind of person who should be reviewing a book like this. Read straight through, Dying: A Book of Comfort was a spiritual exercise for me. Some chapters let me look at dying from my father’s perspective. Other chapters simply gave me the perspective of people who have been through this before me and my family.
“Pat McNees’s collection contains carefully selected and ordered pieces – poems, prayers, prose, and fiction. The anthology explores a range of experiences: living when you know you are dying; caring for and about someone who is dying; saying goodbye; and dealing with how it feels to be left behind. When Pat was talking with publishers about printing a bookstore version, some told her it should be a book either about dying or about grieving, but Pat saw them as part of a continuum.
“If read straight through, the book’s structure allows the reader to move through the process of dying and grieving in an arc, starting with ‘Illness as Awakening.’ Following chapters examine how people who are dying, as well as their loved ones, experience the process of dying and saying goodbye. The apex of the arc is death itself, with chapters including views on immortality and prayer. The book then moves into the ‘Journey Through Grief.’ What follows are chapters devoted to mourning the loss of a child, parent, or spouse, and to grieving a sudden death or suicide. The closing chapters have their focus on death’s aftermath – the remembering, for example, or the other ways we deal with the ongoingness of this greatest of all losses.
“McNees has kept her selections fairly short. The brevity of the passages, and their concrete relevance to the topic at hand, make the book very reader-friendly. These characteristics reflect the advice of grief counselor Kathleen Braza, who has found that people who are grieving generally can’t read long passages or process symbolism.
“The first time I read this book, I jumped around, the way I usually read a book of poetry. I’d read a passage here and there, periodically finding one that rang very true for me. Beyond being a personal comfort to me, I found the book to be an excellent resource. I’m often at a loss for words when talking with or writing to someone who is grieving. In its pages I have found just the right passage to share with friends of mine who have lost a mother, a husband, a son.
“While McNees didn’t set out to write a spiritual book, she has created a volume that speaks to the heart. Written after her father’s death, her goal in working on this project was to create a book that would help people through the process of death and grieving. Dame Cicely Saunders, founder of Hospice, says of Pat’s book, ‘This remarkable collection, coming from personal experience and wide reading, will help many find the potential of growth through loss.’
“Dying: A Book of Comfort would make a thoughtful gift for a family or individual coping with terminal illness, someone who is grieving, or people who work with dying or bereaved. My copy has already become dog-eared and annotated, as it travels with me to visit my father. Thanks, Pat, for the words of comfort."
~ Eileen Hanning’s review, for Signature, the newsletter of the Women’s National Book Association, DC chapter
Buy it now.
Pat teaching report writing for UNESCO and UNDP (through Antoine Schwartz), in Burma in 1991, after her father died and as she began gathering material for DYING: A Book of Comfort.