The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying, Book Review Example

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Book Review

Abstract

Thanatology, the science of death, investigates all human behavior and mental processes concerning the issue of death.  Since the beginning of time, death has been caricatured, eroticized and mystified, and authors DeSpelder and Strickland attempt to present the way Western civilization handles death.  They add colorful details describing other culture’s rituals and traditions, touchy issues like euthanasia, suicide, violent death, and death of a child.  Additionally, my positive and negative opinions about the book and my feelings on whether it is appropriate to be used as a counseling tool in therapy are included in this essay.

The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying: Synopsis, Opinions, and Counseling Suitability

Mexican poet and philosopher Octavio Paz reasoned, “A civilization that denies death ends by denying life” (DeSpelder & Strickland, 2010, p. 6).  Paz was a visionary who saw death as a powerful symbol of a people’s culture—its meaning deeply woven into a people’s beliefs and traditions much like fine threads are intricately woven into a lavish fabric.  One cannot exist without the other.  The two authors define death as a necessary event to foster “species survival” because a normal life span allows humans to reproduce themselves, and “its brevity allows for new genetic combinations” (p. 29).

The authors discuss the cyclic nature of life and death.  In Native American funeral rituals, the Hopi believe the living must lead the dead to their origin, the Underworld, and they dress a deceased female in her bridal clothes and bury her sitting up (p. 51), while the 17th and early18th Century views of death believe man is predestined with no free will; concurrently, the Puritans have simple gravestones, no eulogies, and no expensive or elaborate rituals because they feel death represents eternal damnation (pp. 47-82).  Thus, every culture has its own unique diversity in memorializing the dead.

The book provides excellent insight into modern attitudes, trends and practices concerning death.  Both health care and religion intrude upon the subject of death which inflates the cost of dying into big business.  Death is no longer simple; it is complicated, complex and the driving force of many legal battles.  In the final event of life, machines often sustain bodily functions—a technological advancement which alters an earlier definition of death.  Such issues of organ donating and transplanting, euthanasia, and a human’s right to life muddy the waters even more when contemplating the “right” time to die (pp. 210-222). DeSpelder and Strickland (2010) discuss different 20th Century concepts regarding grief.  In 1917, Freud theorized that we invest libido in our loved ones when we become emotionally attached.  To resolve grief, he reasoned, we must dissolve emotional attachments by retrieving our invested energies.  In 1965, anthropologist Gorer identified three grief phases:  Shock, intense grief, and reawakening.  In 1972, Kavanaugh listed seven phases:  Shock and denial, disorganization, volatile emotion, guilt, loss and loneliness, relief, and reestablishment of life (pp. 239-272).

The authors discuss legal issues pertaining to death.  For example, they describe four types of wills [basic, mirror (joint), discretionary trust and property trust] and define a living will—a document stating the signer’s wishes regarding medical treatment, especially treatment that prolongs life via extraordinary methods.  They also discuss reasons for autopsies, information on a death certificate, and probate—a legal process that establishes a will’s authenticity in the presence of a court of law (pp. 311-350).

DeSpelder and Strickland (2010) noted different ways to tell a child about a deceased loved one, depending upon the child’s age.  Child psychologist Piaget establishes distinct cognitive development stages as a child ages.  Piaget’s main points include: Objects continue to exist when they disappear from view (birth to age 2); children only understand egocentric thought (ages 2-6); children develop alternative views and understand that when an object leaves its environment, even though it is transferred, it stays the same (ages 6-12); and children develop abstract and logical reasoning (age 12 and up).  Accordingly, the concept of death should be adapted to fit the appropriate age of the child when explaining the passing of a loved one (pp. 381-354).

This book encourages one to think outside the box.  In Western cultures, we do not like to discuss death—we refer to it as “a passing” or “departing.”  Although we arrange for elaborate coffins, adornment of the corpse, expensive funerals, ornate floral arrangements, and lavish wakes, we still find ourselves grieving for months after the death of a deceased.  The authors discussed death from different views:  anthropological, psychological, medical, religious, legal, and historic.  Surprisingly, the oldest and simplest cultures have some of the best traditions concerning body disposal and going on to the next life because they treat death as a continuance of the natural cycle of life.

The material covering funeral rites and rituals, along with psychological and behaviorist theories, contributes to some fascinating reading.  Death will never cease to be abstract, symbolic or mystical, and this makes many people uncomfortable—somewhat like the joke of the elephant in the room but none wish to mention it.  When an adult suffers from extended mourning or a child withdraws from reality and continues to grieve, professional help is necessary.  The authors succeed at making one think about all the issues surrounding death and how to find happiness despite the big hole left in one’s world after a loved one dies.

Some negative issues concerning the book were organization and not enough information on relevant subject material.  While reading the book, I noticed that information like cultural traditions and historical practices was referenced in the beginning of the book and then mentioned later in the book, basically repeating the same information.  This seemed like the authors were padding the book with extra pages that were irrelevant.  A better method would have been to dedicate a chapter to rituals, another to historical views, another to legal, etc.; this n would have organized the book better.  I found gaps in the information presented.  I would have liked to have had fuller, richer details of the way other societies handle death and the way children in other cultures deal with death.  The mystical view of death was lacking in the book because I found myself intrigued by the Native American and Hindu life-after-death concepts, but the authors hurry through this fascinating material and only mention fragments of other culture’s mystical beliefs.

This book should be on every therapist’s bookshelf to consult during the appropriate time.  However, a counselor should be careful when considering the type of person who would benefit from this book.  For instance, a person that is having nightmares and macabre visions of a loved one’s death or decomposed body should not have access to this book because it contains some disturbing verbal images of the dead human body—one example being, “Upon death, the last breath rattles through the throat” as the body utters “gurgling, gasping sounds,” and there is a “change in body color as the normal flesh tone develops tinges of blue.”  The visual image is completed with the words, “[the] once warm, flexible body” is now “cold and flaccid” (DeSpelder & Strickland, 2010, p. 10).  This is a strong visual image of a corpse and might make one who is grieving feel even worse.  The authors do not sugarcoat the details, but often present harsh, grim pictures of the reality of death.

A grieving client who needs a therapist’s uplifting words could benefit from this book in the later stages of grief.  Rather than giving a client the book to read, it might be better to handpick appropriate chapters that might guide and help a person move along in the stages of grief.  A therapist should tailor chapter material to the appropriate point in time of a person’s grief.  It would be unwise to overload a client with a 672-page death book as one is just beginning to cope with the idea of a loved one’s death.  Instead of this book during early grieving stages, it would be better to use gentle encouragement and sharing of feelings and en watch for signs that the client is beginning to resume normal, everyday activities.

Reference

DeSpelder, L. A., and Strickland, A. L.  (2010).  The last dance:  Encountering death and dying. (9th ed.)New York, NY:  McGraw-Hill.

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