This has been a difficult review to put together because it would be very easy to tell you not to read “DYING WELL: OUR JOURNEY OF LOVE AND LOSS” by Susan Ducharme Hoben. Not because the book is not compelling and well written, but because the story of Bruce Hoben’s terminal cancer diagnosis is heart-wrenching and at times difficult to take in. While Susan, her husband, and their friends and family come to terms with the reality of Bruce’s situation, readers are invited to share in the intimate and complex emotional landscape of the death of a beloved husband, father, and Pa.
Before you even read the first page, you already know that “DYING WELL” does not have a traditionally happy ending. So when you reach the midway point of the book and everyone is optimistic about Bruce’s remission following aggressive chemotherapy, it feels almost too cruel. The family depicted by Ducharme Hoben is not perfect, but it is one whose primary functions are love and support. The book opens with the author’s own brush with death and subsequent triumph; a small offering of hope to offset the inevitable grief to come.
“DYING WELL” is a beautiful portrait of a family learning that the memories they make will have to be enough to sustain them through a lifetime without one of its most important members. Particular attention is paid throughout to ensuring Bruce’s grandchildren have photographs and other tokens to keep, so they will never forget their Pa and all of the love he had for them. While the author’s depictions of lavish travel and vacations can sometimes feel like bragging, the experiences she paints are full of love and are relatable to every family, no matter their financial standing. And the point remains the same: it is more important to focus on the time spent together than the location in which memories are made.
For anyone who has lost a loved one, especially under similar circumstances, the book is sure to unveil deep feelings, perhaps long-buried, of loss and even helplessness. But it is also an uplifting book because of the ways in which Bruce Hoben is brave and unflinching in his decisions regarding both his life and death. For those who have wondered about non-traditional end-of-life decisions, “DYING WELL” offers a perspective where “giving up” is not losing, but instead taking control of one’s own destiny. It is refreshing that Bruce’s decision to forgo further treatment options once his cancer returns is quickly accepted, and even celebrated, by almost everyone who knows him. His family fully recognizes that Bruce’s agency should be respected as he chooses to die in his own way, rather than amidst a futile and painful battle to extend his life.
If you or a loved one has ever had cancer, or if you just want to read an uplifting portrait of a dignified death, then “DYING WELL: OUR JOURNEY OF LOVE AND LOSS” is an excellent book to pick up. But remember that this is a different kind of happy ending, and it will come with no shortage of heartbreak and tears. Susan Ducharme Hoben and her husband have given us the gift of intimate understanding, so readers can walk away from her book with an increased sense of compassion and empathy, with the tools necessary to ensure you can support your loved ones and yourself through complicated end-of-life decisions.
“DYING WELL” is available online, as well as at a multitude of local bookstores in the Philadelphia area, including Penn Books. You can find more information about the author and the book on her Facebook page or at her website.