On Being Alive: An  Accompanying Reading List


Contemplating one’s mortality can be difficult – it is a subject we often avoid, despite death being an inevitable part of human existence. But what if honest conversations about death could lead us to live more meaningful lives? Inspired by our August 13 panel discussion "On Being Alive" , here are four recently released memoirs by Canadian authors that explore the topic.

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Dead Mom Walking
By Rachel Matlow

Published by Viking (Penguin Random House)

When her mother is diagnosed with cancer, Rachel Matlow is concerned but hopeful. It's Stage 1, so her mom will get surgery and everything will go back to normal. When Elaine decides to forgo conventional treatment and heal herself naturally, Rachel is forced to ponder whether the very things that made her mom so specialher independent spirit, her belief in being the author of her own storyare what will ultimately kill her. As the cancer progresses, so does Elaine's conviction in doing things her way. She assembles a dream team of alternative healers, gulps down herbal tinctures with every meal, and talks (with respect) to her cancer cells. Anxious and confused, Rachel is torn between indulging her pie-in-the-sky pursuits (ayahuasca and all) and pleading with the person who's taking her mother away.

With irreverence and honestyand a little help from Elaine's journals and self-published dating guide, plus hours of conversations recorded in her dying daysMatlow brings her inimitable mother to life on the page. Dead Mom Walking is the hilarious and heartfelt story of what happens when two people who've always written their own script go head to head with each other, and with life's least forgiving plot device.

Q & A with Rachel Matlow

Why do you think people often avoid talking openly about death?
Talking about death can be scary! Perhaps scarier than the act itself. It’s not so fun to think about our own mortality and the fact that everyone we love will one day die [insert jazz hands]. And unfortunately, the more we avoid talking about death, the more mysterious and frightening it becomes. I get it, facing our inevitable demise is uncomfortable and no one wants to be perceived as a “downer” for bringing it up. Maybe on some level we’re afraid that raising the subject will tempt fate. But so far, no one’s been able to avoid death in the end.

Do you think conversations about death help us to lead more meaningful lives? If so, how?
I do believe that talking (and even laughing) about death can help us to lead richer lives. I’m all for a little exposure therapy. Ask your parents about their end-of-life wishes! Consider your own going-out-of-business plan! It’s cliché, but embracing the reality of death and its inevitability can help us better appreciate the time we have. Life is precious. It just sucks that it often takes losing a loved one to really get that.



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The Last Goldfish
by Anita Lahey
Published by Biblioasis

Twenty-five years ago and counting, Louisa, my true, essential, always-there-for-everything friend, died. We were 22.

When Anita Lahey opens her binder in grade nine French and gasps over an unsigned form, the girl with the burst of red hair in front of her whispers, Forge it! Thus begins an intense, joyful friendship, one of those powerful bonds forged in youth that shapes a person’s identity and changes the course of a life.

Anita and Louisa navigate the wilds of 1980s suburban adolescence against the backdrop of dramatic world events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. They make carpe diem their manifesto and hatch ambitious plans. But when Louisa’s life takes a shocking turn, into hospital wards, medical tests, and treatments, a new possibility confronts them, one that alters, with devastating finality, the prospect of the future for them both.

Equal parts humorous and heartbreaking, The Last Goldfish is a poignant memoir of youth, friendship, and the impermanence of life.

Q & A with Anita Lahey

How do you find the courage to write about someone you’ve lost, and what prompted you to share your experience with others?
In my case, I wouldn’t call it courage so much as compulsion. When my friend Louisa died at 22, more than a quarter century ago, I found her loss nearly impossible to fathom. It wasn’t just that she was lost to me, but that her future was lost to her: all the things she’d hoped to do in life. She was the kind of person who cultivated a sense of possibility in those around her. She’d won a leadership award at our high school graduation. But she was also goofy, silly, refreshing. I think she stood out among all our peers for her ability to be herself, even simply for knowing who that was. Being with her was a relief from the intensity of adolescence.

And yet she had her own intensity that could infect you: that made you want to be better, to do more—to figure out what you had to offer. I began writing about her almost immediately after she died, writing down everything I could remember, in the early morning hours before I went to work. I believe I was trying to prevent her from disappearing. I wanted people to know her. I wanted the universe to hear me out, to agree that what had happened to her was a loss to us all. I was driven by grief, and fury, and love, and though my sense of her (and our!) significance to the wider world was all out of proportion, I give credit to the person I was then, for believing in my instinct to hold tight to as much of my friend as I could: to try to do justice to who she had been, and the short life she’d lived.

What was the most unexpected thing you learned about yourself, or about the subject of your novel, as you were writing?
Louisa once wrote of me in in her journal that I had a habit of seeking meaning in things that just wasn’t there. I was offended. I didn’t understand what she meant. But the comment was true, and prescient, for after her death I spent many years doing just that as I tried, in fits and starts, to write about her. The meaning, the story, was before me, in her youthful struggle with a fatal disease, in our friendship, and in how those two things intersected. But I was sure that to write a “real” story, I had to find something more, or different. I veered into fiction, inserting all kinds of plot points such as a character who worked with adults who had developmental disabilities—really, an entirely unrelated story that grew out of a part-time job I’d once had. I was avoiding the point. I didn’t want to admit that her illness had become the main thruline in her life: even though it had killed her, I didn’t want to give it that power. This thwarted my efforts for many years. I never would have seen myself as a person in denial, avoiding the hard truth—but I was. This perpetual seeking for nonexistent meaning, a tic Louisa saw so clearly in me at the age of 16—how’s that for psychological maturity?—was a tactic, a distraction, a means of defense.

Did you begin writing your book knowing it would be shared with others? Or did it begin as a more personal project?
I hoped it would be shared with others, but scarcely dared hope that I could convince anyone but me to care about it. First, it took me a long time to acknowledge that in writing about Louisa, I was also writing about myself—about us, together, and our friendship—and then to give myself permission to do that. That hurdle crossed, I told myself I would do my best by our story, but I wouldn’t expect anything to come of it. For I understood that a story about two teenage girls, neither of whom are famous, and one of whom dies, could come across to potential readers or publishers as maudlin, inconsequential, far from compelling. People die all the time, after all, many of them in worse contexts or more tragic (or socially/historically pertinent) circumstances. And who (except teenage girls) cares about the lives of teenage girls? My doubt spoke in part to some level of common sense, a healthy sense of our own place in the grand scheme of things, and in part to my own absorption of our society’s innate sexism. 

Why do you think people often avoid talking openly about death?
It’s hard to put anything clearly into words regarding one of the biggest mysteries of life. I call death a “big mystery” in all seriousness: Even though it’s inevitable, the end of our own existence or that of anyone we love is barely possible to grasp. A person’s presence, once real, is not easily wiped away. How do you tackle such an intractable contradiction? I have written a book about a dead loved one, and I hardly know.

Some people avoid talking about things that make them sad, or scared. You could say some are afraid that addressing the question of death will cause unhappiness in those around them. I think, too, that there may be some deep-seated instinct in us that we scarcely understand: that to acknowledge Death openly may be to invite It in the door—perhaps sooner than its appointed time.

Do you think conversations about death help us to lead more meaningful lives? If so, how?
For many years before she died, at the age of 93, my Polish grandmother would wave goodbye to myself or my sister from behind the wrought-iron railing atop her Hamilton porch, and call out, in her choppy English, “I’m probably no see you again!” Some might hear this and think: death is coming for us all, we know it, why dwell on it so? Why not just enjoy seeing your grandchildren while you’re still alive?

I do have sympathy for that disposition. I know that talking openly about our feelings is supposed to be good for us. And that such things as death cafés are considered a promising trend. I’m all for anything that eases our collective unease about death. But I have every sympathy for those who’d prefer, ahem, not to talk “death” to death.

There are those who are quite willing and able to face the possibility of death—their own, and those they love—without the need to talk it through all that much. Quiet acceptance and serenity are not the same as avoidance, and we aren’t always equipped to distinguish between the two.

Me, though, I still see my grandmother standing on the porch; still hear her voice, clear as a bell; still feel her fear—or was it instead a keen awareness?—that this time might truly prove our last farewell.

She is dead, and has been for many years. But such memories, the senses they stir, insist otherwise. And though I’m not sure it was helpful to her to dwell on her approaching death, I’m grateful that she acknowledged it so openly: she forced us to pause, to pay attention, to be aware. There is a story in the Bible about always being ready to light your lamp, having enough oil at hand. It’s a memorable and effective parable. I think Babci, as we called her, was reminding us to “stock up” on what we would need in her absence—whatever emotional or spiritual stores would get us through.

Of course it can be meaningful and good and important to talk about death. But what one person needs is not always what we all need. I’m wary of prescriptions.

Looking back on the finished product, what advice would you give to yourself at the start of your writing process for this book? 
Have faith in your own powers of observation. Put down everything you remember, every detail, every colour, every joke or mortification, every sound and smell—you can take out the extra later. And follow Louisa’s advice: stop trying to impose meaning. Just tell the thing as it happened. It is its own meaning.


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Still
by Emma Hansen
Published by Greystone Books

A moving, candid account of one woman's experience with stillbirth.

Emma Hansen is 39 weeks and six days pregnant when she feels her baby go quiet inside of her. At the hospital, her worst fears are confirmed: doctors explain that her baby has died, and she will need to deliver him, still.

Hansen gives birth to her son, Reid, amidst an avalanche of grief. Nine days later, she publishes a candid essay on her website sharing photos from the delivery room. Much to her surprise, her essay goes viral, sparking positive reactions around the world. Still shares what comes next: a struggle with grief and confusion alongside a desire to better understand stillbirth, which is experienced by more than two million women annually, but rarely talked about in public.

At once honest, brave, and uplifting, Still is about one woman's search for her own definition of motherhood, even as she faces one of life's greatest challenges: learning to live after loss.


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Nobody Ever Talks About Anything But The End
by Liz Levine
Published by Simon and Schuster

I feel like I might be a terrible person to be laughing in these moments. But it turns out, I’m not alone.

In November of 2016, Liz Levine’s younger sister, Tamara, reached a breaking point after years of living with mental illness. In the dark hours before dawn, she sent a final message to her family then killed herself.

In Nobody Ever Talks About Anything But the End, Liz weaves the story of what happened to Tamara with another significant death—that of Liz’s childhood love, Judson, to cancer. She writes about her relationship with Judson, Tamara’s struggles, the conflicts that arise in a family of challenging personalities, and how death casts a long shadow. This memorable account of life and loss is haunting yet filled with dark humor—Tamara emails her family when Trump is elected to check if she’s imagining things again, Liz discovers a banana has been indicted as a whistleblower in an alleged family conspiracy, and a little niece declares Tamara’s funeral the “most fun ever!”

With honesty, Liz exposes the raw truths about grief and mourning that we often shy away from—and almost never share with others. And she reveals how, in the midst of death, life—with all its messy complications—must also be celebrated.